Vita Gazette

News from Italy

City Lights: Massimo Troisi

by Andira Vitale

In the movie Il Postino, a young man becomes Pablo Neruda’s Postman. Thus, he steps into the world of words, activating his desire to become a poet and conquer the woman’s heart of his dreams. In the movie Il Postino, written by Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta, first for radio, then for theatre plays and novels and later for unforgettable films, Philippe Noiret plays Neruda, and Massimo Troisi plays Postman Mario.

Il Postino is one of three films adapted from Antonio Skármeta’s play novel dedicated to Neruda. Antonio Skármeta’s story “Ardiente Paciencia,” which took place in a small fishing town called Isla Negra in Chile in the 1970s, was moved to the 1950s and Italy. There is a phase in Neruda’s reality where he was an obligatory guest at the house of historian Edwin Cerio on the Italian island of Capri (1952). The shooting location of Il Postino was the island of Salina, Sicily.

Troisi loved the book Neruda’s Postman by the Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta. A couple of years earlier, he had received a copy as a gift from Nathalie Caldonazzo, his partner. After reading it, Troisi was so enthusiastic that he purchased the rights for a future film adaptation. Skármeta’s book tells the story of Mario Jiménez, a fisherman who is appointed Postman of the remote village of Isla Negra in Chile, with the task of delivering the mail to the only person who receives mail in that place: the poet Pablo Neruda, with whom he forms a deep bond of friendship.

First, he decided to entrust the direction to the British director, Michael Radford. To set the film in Italy, Troisi made some changes: Isla Negra was replaced by an island in Southern Italy where Neruda (Philippe Noiret) had received political asylum after being forced to leave Chile because of his ideas of communists. In contrast, Jiménez was replaced by Mario Ruoppolo (Troisi).

To complete the screenplay, in the summer of 1993, Radford, Troisi, and Scarpelli (Furio) moved to Los Angeles, United States, for a period. Troisi took the opportunity to go to Houston, Texas, and be examined in the same hospital where, 18 years earlier, he had undergone an operation on the mitral valve, the one that connects the left atrium and ventricle of the heart. The tests highlighted a deterioration of the titanium valves that had been implanted in 1976, and Troisi was subjected to emergency cardiac surgery. In the operating room, he had a heart attack. He was forced to remain in hospital for almost two months. The doctors advised him to have a heart transplant, but Troisi decided to postpone the operation to finish The Postman, whose production was now at an advanced stage.

Filming began on March 14, 1994, and lasted 12 weeks. They took place in three different areas: the Cinecittà studios in Rome, Salina (the island where the house where Neruda lives in the film is located) and Procida. The filming period was very tiring for Troisi, who, due to tiredness and constant heart problems, could only stay on set for a few minutes at a time. “He was very ill; he had the physical condition of an 83-year-old person: he could walk around a maximum of an hour a day, remaining seated the whole time,” Radford said, speaking of all the difficulties he encountered in those 12 weeks.

To shoot the most tiring scenes, those on the bike, a stunt double was hired: Gerardo Ferrara, a physical education teacher from Sapri, in the province of Salerno, who was chosen because of his extraordinary resemblance to Troisi. He was recruited quickly after being contacted by the partner of one of the director’s operators. In an interview given to Corriere della Sera, Ferrara said that in the last days of filming Troisi, he “was exhausted: one afternoon, he asked to stop because he couldn’t carry on. And we all stopped out of respect for him.”

On June 3, on the night between Friday 3 and Saturday, June 4 1994, immediately after filming ended, Troisi went to rest at his sister’s house in the Roman hamlet of Infernetto. He died during his sleep from a heart attack: he was 41 years old, and for at least a decade, he had been considered one of the best Italian actors around, appreciated for his surreal humour, halfway between self-pity and excellent clarity, and for his ability to preside over all the processes underlying the making of a film, from direction to screenplay.

Troisi was a perfect blend of irony and melancholy; he was an actor capable of joking about universal defects with extreme irreverence, but he was also capable of transforming himself into a sensitive and defenceless man in the face of everyday situations. Unfortunately, fate denied this “Pulcinella without a mask” a fair existence, denying the public the ability to enjoy such a strong talent and such a pleasant and beautiful presence.

Born on February 19 1953 in San Giorgio a Cremano (on the outskirts of Naples but in the heart of a devastated suburb, still countryside, not yet city) and raised in a small and overcrowded house (five brothers, two parents, two grandparents and five grandchildren), Troisi had always fought against a problematic destiny, exacerbated since his youth by painful rheumatic fevers which produced heart failure in the mitral valve which would have been fatal to him at just 41 years of age.

Father railway engineer and mother housewife, the “Pulcinella without a mask” that the public would have loved since his debut with “Ricomincio da tre” (1981) was formed on the stage, instinctive heir of Eduardo and of a mocking and painful Neapolitanness which would have brought about a different feeling, that of the “new Naples” of Pino Daniele and Roberto De Simone. With the group “I Saraceni” and then with the stainless friends of “La Smorfia” (Lello Arena and Enzo Decaro), he soon left the vernacular confines of village success to bring his lively and torrential Neapolitan dialect to national television networks and then to the cinema. As had happened to Eduardo and Totò, that speech became understandable to everyone beyond words, synonymous with a universal feeling in which the mask becomes a face and the character a universal paradigm.

Even if his comedy was significantly linked to his origins, Troisi was also Neapolitan in a personal way and opposed to the clichés of Neapolitanism, which he often tried to make fun of and criticise with shy, awkward, sensitive characters. This trend became even more evident starting from the second half of the 1980s, when Troisi’s characters became increasingly more complex and independent from the comic side, with more severe and melancholy characterisations. The Postman is considered the most representative film of this second phase of his career. He is often compared to a sort of artistic testament by Troisi, who decided to postpone a heart transplant operation to complete it.

ll Postino left a note in history for Neruda, one of the most important names and politicians of 20th-century poetry and winner of the World Peace and Nobel Prize in Literature, who knew the pain of life in exile. The actor, one of the film’s screenwriters, also brought the audience unusually close to the poem with the help of Massimo Troisi, aka postman Mario, who postponed his fatal heart surgery to complete the film. Massimo Troisi was 41 years old when he died, and the film, whose success he could not witness, was dedicated to him.

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