|Poetry, Politics and the Postman
|written by nathan
||March 18, 2003 - 7:31 AM PST
8 out of 9 members found this review helpful
|In 1970, Salvador Allende, after three unsuccessful attempts, finally became president of Chilé. He was, arguably, the first democratically elected Marxist to ever become a head of state. He began to implement the ideas of his Popular Unity platform and quickly became a target of the imperialistic tendencies of international business. The first major international accumulator of capital to grow wary was the American-based ITT corporation. By 1973, through their enlistment of the US Central Intelligence Agency, international capital was able to subject Chile to a violent military coup (in which Allende was killed). Aided by the United States, General Pinochet's bloody military dictatorship pandered to the interests of foreign investors for sixteen years. Allende's murder sent a resounding message around the world: mess with the interests of the rich and "we" will kill you.
The poet of the proletariat (as well as of the lover and beloved), Pablo Neruda, had been nominated for the same, "communist" party ticket but bowed out once Allende (a seasoned politician) expressed an interest in running for the presidency that fourth time. As fate would have it, Neruda died the same year that Allende was killed by American-backed forces. What would have happened had Neruda become president is open to speculation. His political attitudes, the social milieu in which he lived, and his achievements as a poet (Kenneth Rexroth--the father of the beats--once called him "almost certainly the leading poet of his type") are a matter of record.
Michael Radford's Il Postino (The Postman), now playing in Arcata, draws from this real life intermingling of left wing politics and poetry, while taking some liberties with the facts surrounding Neruda's life. These liberties belie a radically different agenda from that embodied in the life and work of Pablo Neruda. Drawing from--and occasionally diverging radically from--Antonio Skarmeta's novel Ardiente Paciencia (Burning Patience), Radford presents us with a set of scenes drawn largely from Skarmeta's book set within a somewhat altered scenario. Skarmeta's book was set in Chile prior to and during the Allende presidency. Il Postino takes place on a small Italian island, during and after Neruda's fictitiously composed exile there.
The film takes a cynical stance regarding the ability of the inhabitants of a rural fishing village--and, perhaps, of the film's audience--to understand political issues. The stance implies that working towards social equity is not worthwhile.
Prior to Neruda's arrival in the narrative, we are introduced to Mario. Early in the film, he goes to a movie theater. The newsreel Mario sees depicts the arrival of Neruda, recently cast out of Chile, at an Italian railway station amid protests aimed at convincing the Italian government to let Neruda stay. This newsreel forms a microcosm of Il Postino's attitude both towards the working people in the film and towards those who view the film.
The black-and-white images of the newsreel at first appear to mirror the simplistic voice-over accompanying the images of Neruda walking through a train-station full of protesters. The verbal narrative paints a dichotomous picture of Neruda's political consciousness and those of the newsreel's expected viewers. We, the newsreel implies, will view Neruda as an eccentric (perhaps even as a subversive) for his political views. At the same time, his notoriety as a poet (and, even more so, as a celebrity) will be what matters to us most.
Never mind that Neruda speaks eloquently of our plight as exploited individuals. Pay attention to "Neruda, the poet of love"--and to his romantic aura. But just as black-and-white images are really composed of varying shades of gray, the film subverts itself by pandering to an a- political/apathetic/right-wing understanding of the social world while unintentionally demonstrating this bias to us at the level of a sub-text.
This attitude of post-modern indifference to matters of politics and economics is a frightfully pervasive, implicit, rightist theme underlying many interludes in the film. An initial example occurs with the characterization of Mario's boss, Giorgio.
Giorgio runs the local post-and-telegraph office. Neruda is coming to town and will be receiving bags of mail each day that need to be delivered to his semi-remote home. Giorgio needs an individual to make a single, arduous special delivery every day. With un-acknowledged shades of DeSica's Bicycle Thieves (sic) in the air, Mario is granted a job paying "just enough to go to the cinema once a week" in light of the fact that he owns a bike.
The telling exchange between Giorgio and Mario occurs during their first encounter. In introducing the new postman to the standards of his office, Giorgio states plainly that while he is a "communist" he expects to be called "sir". This kind of ironic utterance is echoed through three or four similar scenes throughout the film.
On the surface, the humor is undeniable. Beneath that, however, lies a contempt for attempts to achieve social equity. The implication is that perhaps the most we can hope for from a movement for social justice is a good laugh based on its hypocrisy. But Radford suggests that we can expect more.
The "more" is not the political reality of being exiled embodied in Neruda's plight. This is part of the statement that the film makes. And it is certainly a necessary plot device inasmuch as it explains why Neruda is in Italy. But the "more" we can expect from social activism exposes itself more subtly.
One result of progressive political participation Radford presents is the untimely death of our beloved postman. Towards the end of the film, through a series of flashbacks, we see the recently politicized Mario attend a "communist" rally. When the rally is dispersed by the police, a small riot ensues. In the tumult, Mario is killed.
One is left with the feeling (expressed by Mario's wife), If only he hadn't gotten involved with radical politics! If only he hadn't gone to that rally on that fateful day! And so on. These views are expressed in the presence of Neruda, so she refrains from directly blaming him. But the implication is there, since Neruda inspired many of Mario's beliefs. And Neruda is visibly shaken with a kind of remorse mixed with disillusionment.
Of course, if it wasn't for "that poet" Mario might never have married the woman he fell in love with. This tension is at the root of the dichotomy Radford constructs. On one side of the balance, all these ideas about equality and democracy expressed by Neruda are either ridiculed or portrayed as dangerous. On the other side of the scale, we find Neruda the poet of love. It is this side of his pursuits that are heralded. Whether in the romantic love he and Matilde shared or in his ability to communicate the state of romantic ecstasy in verse (that permits others to find their own paths to such a destination), Neruda's actions are vindicated when unattached to concern about political, social and economic domination.
There are problems with comparing a film to the book from which it was derived. In most instances, I prefer to view the film as an independent creation and attempt to appreciate it on its own terms. But with Il Postino, examining some of the ways in which the film differs from its inspiration, Ardiente Paciencia (Burning Patience) offers insight into the films implicit argument against social awareness. There are many variations between the two texts. For example, as already mentioned, they are set in two different countries during two different periods of time. I'll describe just two indicative variations between the two works.
First, in the film, Neruda is portrayed as entirely uninterested in continuing contact with the people he has been living with--whose lives he has touched--once he departs from the fishing village. He stirs things within the hearts of the villagers, plays matchmaker for Mario, inspires the name of the new couple's child, informs Mario's political and aesthetic sensibilities--and then fails to write to or publicly speak of his Italian interlude. As one of the most cynical characters in the film comments, when a bird is done eating, it flies away.
In the book, however, Neruda remains much truer to the spirit of camaraderie he expressed about--and imparted to--the people of the small village near where he lived. Even in his absence, he still thinks of Mario. In the film, Mario turns to making a recording of characteristic sounds of the fishing village to send to Neruda (as a way of reminding him what he has left behind and how intensely Mario still feels for him). In the book, Neruda writes to Mario, sends him a Sony tape recorder, and asks Mario to make just such a recording because he is missing the village so much.
The film creates an implicitly two-faced radical intellectual who appears to live by an out-of-sight-out-of-mind principle. Without faulting the film for not faithfully adapting the book to the screen, this particular re-arrangement of the plot serves to further undermine our faith in the character of Neruda and the ideas of communalism he personifies.
Another telling discrepancy between the book and the film involves Mario's death. In the book he doesn't die. He grows old with his family, experiences the transformation of Chilean society under Allende (before the violent halt), and outlives Neruda. His politics and his love of Neruda do not kill him. These parts of his personality set Mario free.
Both of these inversions (who writes whom and who dies) demonstrate the underlying subtext present throughout much of Il Postino. I have little problem with a screenwriter altering a book however much to create a meaningful, independent film. But the manner in which this film reworks the book that inspired it serves to denigrate the potential for even mildly venerating work for social justice.
The message: Speak of metaphors about the sunset. Watch the sea's rippling waves. But pay no attention to the fellow removing the money from your pocket that you have earned. You're better off exploited than working for change.
The problem: Neruda's possible nagging doubts towards the end of his life not withstanding, I find at the core of Il Postino an undermining of the aspirations of all people (such as Neruda) who spend their lives working for justice.