A celebrated South American poet (Philippe Noiret playing Paolo Neruda) moves to an Amalfi Coast island seeking refuge from rumblings that he’s about the win the Nobel Prize for Literature despite his Communist leanings. His only contact with the day-to-day comes in brief dealings with the island postman Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi), handpicked to bike the mail to Neruda’s remote outpost. An uncommon bond forms between the uneducated “postino” and the erudite poet, so much so that the two become friends of a sort and the poet imparts both anecdotal and romantic advice (Mario has his eyes on local beauty Beatrice, played by Maria Grazie Cuccinotti, eventually wooing and marrying her).
While the usually fine Noiret is miscast by British director Michael Radford (his temperament and aspect are Gallic not Latin American) and Cuccinotta little more than “dolce vita” eye candy, Troisi bravely carries the action. The melancholy Neapolitan comedian, among the most underrated of a generation that included Roberto Benigni, generates a memorably nervous character that keeps poking away at the revered poet until the great man concedes an inch, then a mile. Pauper Mario is a lapsed fisherman eager to use Neruda as a bridge to wider knowledge. The story a pulse so long as the camera stays on Mario, withering badly when it enters sentimental territory.
Troisi, only 40 at the time, looks sadly anemic, which might have reflected the lean times faced by Italy between 1950 and 1970 had Troisi not been literally heartsick at the time. He died of a heart attack soon after the film was released. The story is based on the novel “Ardiente Paciencia” by Chilean novelis Antonio Skaramta, who set the action in the Chilean coastal area of Isla Negra, where Neruda actually lived and wrote.