Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Postman (Il Postino) -- the power of words

Director: Michael Radford, 1994.

The ancient Greek poet Euripides once said, "The tongue is mightier than the blade." In the 19th century Edward Bulwer-Lytton recoined this phrase as "The pen is mightier than the sword." In The Postman, Radford brings to center stage the power of words in the form of poetry to sculpt a romance and win a woman's heart.

Writer Massimo Troisi stars as Mario Ruoppolo, a nondescript unemployed fisherman's son who detests fishing. Living on a remote Italian island in 1952, there is little work to be had. But when Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) comes to the island in exile from his native Chile, a part-time postman is needed to carry the copious quantity of fan-mail, mostly from females, to his hilltop villa. Mario gets the job and begins the daily bike-ride to deliver the mail to his one customer.

The film is loosely based on Neruda's actual stay in a villa on the island of Capri in 1952. Neruda was a lifelong communist and poet. Widely considered one of the greatest and most influential poets of the 20th century, he wrote poems in a variety of styles including love and romance. In 1971 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Postman focuses on the growing friendship between Mario and Neruda. As they grow closer Neruda helps Mario to appreciate poetry and discover metaphor by seeing things around him in his wonderful island enviroment.

When Mario sees the beautiful Beatrice Russo (Maria Grazia Cucinotta) his heart is captured but his tongue is tied. The shy postman cannot say more than 5 words to her though he wants to woo her. Calling on his friend Neruda, he learns the power of poetry to win her heart. Despite an unexpected and somewhat anticlimactic conclusion, the film is a lyrical ode to love.

Troisi brings an underplayed sense of the everyman to this role. Tall, thin and unprepossessing he is a quiet hero who many in the audience can relate to. No Brad Pitt, he is a leaner John Cusack. The true-life tragedy of The Postman is that Troisi had a known heart condition requiring surgery. But he postponed this so he could finish the film and then the very day after completing the movie he died of a fatal heart attack. This film lives on as his legacy.

The Postman is first and foremost a beautiful love story: the shy postman seeking to win the love of the village belle. Love is a marvellous motivator to cause men to slay dragons, to fight fires, to do things they never dreamed possible. Love is in the heart of men and is at the core of God (1 Jn. 4:16). In the story, Mario's dragon is his timidity and he must conquer this to give voice to his emotions and feelings.

At one point in the film, Mario asks Neruda to explain poetry. In a gentle response, Neruda says: "When you explain poetry, it becomes banal. Better than any explanation is the experience of feelings that poetry can reveal to a nature open enough to understand it." Poetry is all about beauty and feelings. There is a power in a poem that cannot be captured by logical description or even prose. Neruda knows this. And he teaches Mario to become a poet like himself. Yet even knowing this, I find myself to be a philistine when it comes to poetry. Perhaps it is my scientific, rationalistic background, but I don't appreciate poetry. I may be one of those people who, as Neruda says, is not open to comprehend. Perhaps it will come with age and maturity.

Certainly The Postman underscores the power of words when combined in careful composition. Many are the martyrs who have died by the sword yet whose words continue, changing lives for decades or even centuries. Words have the power to transcend time and space.

The power of words is also a biblical concept. The writer of Hebrews says (4:12): "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." The word of God here can do more than a normal sword. The word of God is also the means of creation. In Genesis 1, God spoke and his words brought into being the various aspects that we call creation.
The power of words is seen most clearly in the Word. John begins his gospel with a parallel to Genesis 1:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life and that life was the light of men. (Jn. 1:1-4)
Here, the Word is pointing to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. His is the power of life. He offers this life and his resurrection power to all will listen. John makes this clear just a few verses later (1:12): "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." Whether you are a poetry-lover or a philistine, the power of words can impact you in a life-changing way if you embrace Jesus, the Word of God and master-poet!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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