To use a clear black and white designation to describe a person’s character is antiquated and morally unjust. Very few, if any, people have a clear, dichotomous personality and even fewer have thoughts that are simply just or unjust. Moreover, the idea that a person – a thing even – can be purely good or bad is absurd. Surely even the most egotistical among us have a shred of humility; the most hopeless have a glimmer of promise; and the meanest have a sliver of altruism. As far as Il Postino is concerned, this concept is self-evident and its characters are shaped by this multifaceted and amorphous trait.
Magnificent in the lead, Massimo Troisi commands the screen with his characterization of our presumptuous and humble Mario Ruoppolo. Some might see this portrayal, which, unfortunately was Troisi’s last, as a masterstroke, a real brava performance whose weight can carry the plight of a real man desperate for his life. And it shows. Unhappy has a mere fisherman, Ruoppolo seeks his fortune delivering mail and messages to a lone resident, who happens to be esteemed Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Ruoppolo is presumptuous in his solicitation of Neruda. He’s humble and eager to learn to turn a phrase, yet he’s scared to act on impulse. He’s harmlessly dishonest and unflaggingly passionate about the cause – whether it be courtship of his wife-to-be, Beatrice, or about a “new” government.
Neruda, on the other hand plays a wonderful foil to Ruoppolo. He’s demonstrative and proud to Mario’s meekness. Here, these characteristics add together for an enriching dialogue between the two men that jumps off the screen as authentic and warm. Neruda responds to Ruoppolo’s eagerness with patience and deference. Where Ruoppolo is impulsive, Neruda is calculating and learned. Unfortunately, as we learn, Neruda’s casual dishonesty brings with it unintended consequences. Neruda winds and spins through the atmosphere, where Ruoppolo slashes and whips. The additive beauty of the relationship is that both stay within their respective character shells and therefore we, as the audience, start to care what happens to each of them, both separately and together.
It stands, then, we tend to identify with one or many of the traits that help define our leads. But we surely wouldn’t consider ourselves as a “Neruda” or a “Ruoppolo.” Rather, we identify with both and neither at the same time. We may, before, during or after the film find ourselves simultaneously confident and meek; full of wonder and jaded; simply discontented. What enhances the characters and our simultaneous empathy is a pull among traits in so many directions. Even the richest among us have felt longing for something before. We’ve all felt categorically positive and helplessly lost, perhaps even at the same time. During our own micro-denouements, those that define the arc of a day or a week, we’ve been proud and selfish and humble and forgiving. Our only surety, the only yin and yang we can never predict, is the end, however, in tragedy or in comedy.
The portrayal of multi-faceted light and dark makes for a stunning conclusion, though one not so unexpected. Under Neruda’s tutelage Ruoppolo learns to love and forgive and fight for what he believes. Quite unexpectedly, most of all perhaps to Neruda, our esteemed poet learns to honor and cherish loss and respect even the lowest among his peers as equal, at least in some facets. Because at the end of all things, when true light and dark come to swallow us whole, our only judgement will be our own.