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By the standards of his southern Italian island village, Mario Ruoppolo is a literary man: He can read. That doesn’t mean, however, that he’s a likely soul mate for Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret), the exiled Chilean poet who has just arrived on the island. A fisherman who dislikes the sea, Mario (Massimo Troisi) gets the newly created job of delivering Neruda’s voluminous fan mail to the villa where the Communist writer and his lover Mathilde have been temporarily installed (and are essentially under house arrest). Mario’s secret ambition: to learn the language of love.
Adapted from Antonio Skármeta’s novel, Burning Patience, by director Michael Radford, Anna Pavignano, Furio Scarpelli, Giacomo Scarpelli, and Troisi, The Postman (Il Postino) is quintessentially Italian. Though Radford is an Englishman who’s directed such coldhearted films as 1984 and White Mischief, he yields to his star and his location here, crafting a sweet, serene, but seldom overly sentimental tale: The awkward Mario and the avuncular Neruda do become friends, but the film doesn’t pretend that the former is implausibly intelligent, or that the latter is implausibly benevolent.
Indeed, despite his purported working-class sympathies, the poet is initially uninterested in the clumsy, chatty postman. After Mario asks Neruda to sign a book of his poems and then recites one of them to him, the writer warms to the earnest, childlike young man. Mario’s only source of income is tips, and soon he’s receiving more than mere coins: Neruda explains metaphors to his new friend, and counsels him in his pursuit of a voluptuous local barmaid (Maria Grazia Cucinotta) with the eminently poetic name of Beatrice.
The writer draws the line at composing a poem for the woman, and objects when Mario uses one of Neruda’s poems to woo her. “Poetry belongs not to those who write it, but to those who need it,” Mario responds, an elegant rebuke the Marxist poet can hardly dispute. This is no King of Comedy, though; the balance between artist and fan never threatens to shift.
Neruda’s idyll is short-lived, which suits most of the island’s authorities just fine. “Remember, poets can do a lot of damage to people,” a politician counsels Mario; later, the local priest suggests that Neruda might be childless because he’s eaten his offspring, the way Communists in Russia do. Despite such suspicions, Neruda’s poetry proves more powerful even than Beatrice’s formidable aunt, and helps Mario successfully court the young woman. Then the Chilean warrant for the poet’s arrest is lifted, and he begins packing to leave.
The sequences between Neruda’s departure and his brief return are sluggish, and provide the viewer with downtime to contemplate the improbabilities of some of the previous scenes. (For example, why is Mario dumbstruck by his first sight, over a game of tabletop soccer, of Beatrice? Surely in a village of this size he would have spotted her before.) The epilogue is suitably poignant, though, especially since it concludes with a dedication to the late Troisi: Slowed by a diseased heart, the 41-year-old actor could only work two hours a day on the film, but refused to suspend the shooting; he died as soon as principal photography concluded. A charming parable of simpler times and the power of art, The Postman is no tragedy, but such melancholy undercurrents enrich rather than undermine its appeal.
In May 1968, as the student uprising sweeps Paris, two 7-year-old Jewish girls meet in ballet class. Mina Tannenbaum wears glasses, and Ethel Bénégui is chubby, which is enough to bond them as fellow outsiders. As the two grow into young women (now played by Romane Bohringer and Elsa Zylberstein) they remain the closest of friends. After all, the women have the powerful connection of, well, having been 7-year-old ballet students together.
Mina Tannenbaum writer/director Martine Dugowson portrays the link between Mina and Ethel as the most important one in their lives—or at least in Mina’s—and its rupture turns what was social comedy into existential tragedy. This transformation is not convincing, however. As Mina grows into a focused, skilled painter and Ethel becomes a flirtatious, deceitful manipulator with vague journalistic ambitions, it’s only natural that the two drift apart. Rather than a cataclysm, Mina’s increasing distance from Ethel seems like a blessing.
That’s not how Dugowson handles it, though. Making her feature debut, Dugowson is intent on pathos even as she borrows comic techniques from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall period: Commentators appear on-screen to talk about Mina and Ethel, and once Mina even challenges the voice-over, bringing its speaker to earth. Since the viewpoint of Dugowson and her protagonists is female, some of this is fresh: The camera objectifies François, a handsome art student on whom Mina has a crush, as if he were Bo Derek in 10, and bad haircuts, goofy clothes, and male-chauvinist teachers are given an importance they rarely assume in films about male adolescence.
Like some of Allen’s less appealing work, Tannenbaum also features horrific Jewish mothers. Ethel’s, the more garish, warns her daughter that she’ll kill her if she ever marries a “goy.” (Taking this advice literally, Ethel moves in with a gentile, but doesn’t marry him.) Mina’s mom, a Holocaust survivor, erupts at the news that her teen-age daughter plans to socialize with German exchange students, and later appears on a TV show about survivors; accusingly showing her daughter’s picture to the camera, she complains that Mina “refuse[s] to be happy.”
That turns out to be true, but Mina’s unhappiness results more from the film’s contrivance than the natural progression of her character. The painter is supposed to be devastated by her estrangement from Ethel, who by this time has betrayed her longtime friend in numerous inexcusable ways, and the two women’s parallel evolution is pointedly ironic. (The day Mina is scarred in a car accident, Ethel remakes herself as a strawberry blonde.) Yet the possible lessons to be drawn from the two friends’ divergent lives—that artists are inherently unstable, say, or that nice girls finish last—are neither sharp nor satisfying. Tannenbaum is perceptive when its central characters are adolescent, but Dugowson finds growing up even more confusing than do Mina and Ethel.
With a little effort, the thoughtful viewer could get worked up about Pocahontas, the Disney animation factory’s first tentative brush with docudrama. It hardly seems worth it, though.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of this short feature, already pre- sold to a generation of G-rated movie followers and their legal guardians, is what’s been excised: An embrace between the heroine and a shirtless John Smith (voice by Mel Gibson) was reckoned too torrid, while Gibson’s singing voice was apparently deemed too flat. A tepid example of “balanced” mythologizing, Pocahontas presents both the English and the Indians as basically well-meaning, separated by inconsequential differences that have been blown out of proportion. Rather than a history lesson, it’s the latest (and blandest) update of Romeo and Juliet.
For the record, directors Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg and scripters Carl Binder, Susannah Grant, and Philip LaZebnik have provided a few elements that may concern historians, geologists, feminists, and gay activists. The English colonists arrive in conquistador helmets, led by Gov. Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers), who shares the outdated Spanish misapprehension that the New World is stuffed with gold. The Virginia coast is a region of sheer cliffs and surging waterfalls. Wasp-waisted exotic beauty Pocahontas (dialogue by Irene Bedard, singing by Judy Kuhn) is largely patterned on model Christy Turlington. And the odious Ratcliffe is accompanied by a valet who is limp-wristedly gay. (On the evidence of this and Braveheart, such invidious stereotypes apparently follow Gibson every time he steps into the pages of pseudohistory.)
Like such curious recent entertainments as The Goofy Movie and Casper, Pocahontas advertises to the pre-school set the glamour of adolescence and budding sexuality. Pocahontas is admirably in harmony with nature, including a talking tree (Linda Hunt) that counsels her, but basically she’s a girls-just-want-to-have-fun type in an off-the-shoulder minidress; though deprived of a malt shop, she does have a friend with a fashionable bob and two playful animal companions, a raccoon and a hummingbird. The semidutiful daughter of stiffly noble Powhatan (Russell Means), Pocahontas wants to do the right thing for her people, but can’t imagine marrying Kocoum, the most outstanding of the tribe’s young warriors, because he’s so serious.
Far more exuberant is John Smith, a swashbuckling Anglo adventurer whose condescending view of “savages” vanishes when he meets the Indian princess. (At first he’s prepared to shoot her, but is quickly dissuaded, presumably by her resemblance to Christy Turlington.) One of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s dull songs has Pocahontas echoing Heraclitus’ maxim that “you can’t step in the same river twice,” but the movie’s message is anti-Hericlitean: Where the Greek philosopher argued that the universe is constantly being created out of strife, Pocahontas professes that romance between an Indian and an Englishman is all that’s required to create harmony and understanding between the two groups. (American history, of course, records otherwise.)
“We are all connected to each other,” announces one of the songs, a plug for racial brotherhood as well as eco-consciousness. Despite such up-to-date sentiments, Pocahontas’ world is as Disneyfied as Snow White’s, an animated playground for exuberant otters, cuddly bear cubs, and her pals Meeko and Flit. Much has been made of the fact that the raccoon and the hummingbird don’t speak, but that doesn’t mean they’re not anthropomorphized. Indeed, the little troupers work harder than any of the film’s characters, frolicking frantically to distract viewers from the sodden earnestness of the basic scenario. Their modest success suggests that there was something to the funny-animal genre after all.