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The Poetical in the film "Il Postino" 1/3
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-10-08 09:54:48
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Far from being a mere sentimental romantic comedy, or a realistic portrayal of Pablo Neruda's exile from Chile, or of the socio-political conditions of post-war Italy, the Italian award-winning film Il Postino (1995 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film) is an exploration via "fantasia" of the nature of poetry; a thorny issue, reaching back to Plato's stance vis-à-vis Homer in The Republic. It explores this crucial question: Can poetry be subsumed to the ideological and the rational without becoming a servant of philosophy, vulnerable to the manipulations of politicians and ideologues?

The Latin-American poets Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz (Nobel prizes for Literature, 1971 and 1990 respectively) carried on a wide-ranging dialogue on the nature of poetry. This concern, as I have already elaborated in my pieces for Ovi on C.S. Lewis (Till We Have Faces) and Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago), reaches back to Plato's stance vis-à-vis Homer in The Republic. Was Homer the true "educator of Hellas"?

Is the poetical, rather than the philosophical, the area of knowledge where the ancients truly surpass the moderns? Homer was blind because before the invention of writing ears were much more important than eyes to appreciate the beauty of poetry. To be deaf to poetry is indeed to be truly blind even if one is a versifier. After the invention of writing it becomes possible to freeze the poem so to speak, put it in a rationalistic framework and merely read it without truly listening to it. Those issues are re-examined by Giambattista Vico in the 18th century. He dedicates the whole book III of the Scienza Nuova to the "The Discovery of the True Homer."

Before delving into this issue let’s clear the underbrush, so to speak, by examining the exchange between the two above-mentioned poets in the light of the movie Il Postino. As I have attempted to demonstrate with the review of Boris Pasternak's novel Doctor Zhivago, if one were to detach the mytho-poetic and the imaginative from that novel, which at first sight appears to be an historical fiction, one is left with its bare rational shell; a second rate work of art functioning as mere ideological propaganda. The very reason for its rejection by the Soviet publishers was that it did not fulfill the ideological demands of Marxist propaganda. They couldn't care less about its aesthetic beauty or its lyrical power, as long as it was "politically correct."

Similarly, I would suggest that the movie Il Postino has been misread on various levels: it has been mistaken for a romantic comedy, a realistic account of Neruda's brief exile in Italy, a socio-political account of post-war Italy in the 50s, even for a portrayal of the deplorable condition of the Italian postal system. It is partly that, but only on a very superficial level; just as Dante's Commedia is much more than the bizarre story of a man lost in a forest and ending up in some very strange otherworldly places.

I would initially suggest that the key to the movie is to be found not so much in its title, but in its very first scene. In that scene we notice the protagonist (played by Massimo Troisi), as Mario Ruopolo, a fisherman on the island of Procida near Naples, reading a post card he has just received from his cousins in America. He can barely manage to read it, for he is almost illiterate. Here, as Vico teaches us, we need to see the macrocosm reflecting the microcosm in the history of humankind. We seem to be at the place in time when humankind had barely invented writing; the place that Plato was at in Athens four centuries before Christ. That first scene in the movie is similar to the first notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or the first line of Dante's Divine Comedy; it is the refrain imbuing the whole film. It tells us that the controlling god of this story is Hermes (or Mercury in Latin): the god of messages. Messages sent, messages lost, messages received, messages ignored, messages responded to, together with the friendship (filia), or the animosity that they may give rise to. One is brought back to Derridda's seminal essay "The Postcard."

Corollary to this theme of messages is that of the nature of poetry: poetry as a message to be sent out, to be received eagerly by those who have ears and ignored by those who are deaf to it (remember the blind Homer...); or on the other end of the spectrum, poetry as a mere object of aesthetic contemplation devoid of logos. And this brings us to the exchange between Neruda and Paz. Paz would remind Neruda that poetry transcends ideology; that it is most powerful and effective when it is non-rational (which does not mean irrational), intuitive, the expression of powerful emotions; that all children are ipso facto poets: they apprehend the reality in which they live via imagination, just as mankind does in the infancy of civilization (the Vichian eras of the gods and heroes).

If philosophy begins in wonder, then all children are poets and incipient philosophers. When poetry is faithful to this mission of expressing the transcendent and the ineffable, then it is most truly true to itself and then it is out of reach of the rationalist, the king (be he philosopher or demagogue) who wishes to judge it and subsume it under rationality to determine if it is suitable for the common good of the polis. Paz would remind Neruda that when poetry becomes the handmaiden of philosophy, then poetry becomes an esoteric exercise reserved for the few initiates into its mysteries. Then we are bound to see the sad spectacle of the poet being exiled from the polis by the censoring politician, and becoming a mere entertainer at the court of the rich and famous where he/she will be humiliated and insulted (see the scene of the Roman Baccantes in Fellini's Satyricon), But poetry is by its nature the property of all, it is exoteric, it is what Vico calls the fantasia or the common sense (sensus communis); i.e., the common wisdom of all the people (see book III, paragraph 873 of The New Science).

PART THREE (Coming Fri)

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Thanos2007-10-08 23:05:23
I agree that the movie Il Postino is not a romantic comedy but then to understand better I suppose it meant that the audience would have a better sense of Neruda’s work and life, even better a sense on what happened in Chile. How many have read or better how many have ever heard of Canto General? And here I mention one of his most popular works which has become even opera.

I’m looking forward for the continue!

Emanuel Paparella2007-10-09 11:05:56
That is indeed the conundrum in which Neruda was involved in and of which his colleague Octavio Paz reminded him. When poetry becomes mere propaganda, albeit propaganda for social justice, is it still poetry? How come he was awarded the Lenin prise while his fellow Russian poet Pasternak was denied permission to pick up his Nobel prize for literature? I think Mario Ruopolo has the beginning of an answer. Stay tuned. I look forward to your final appraisal of the issue as presented in my interpretation of that gem of a film.

Jean2012-02-12 21:30:58
I watched this movie not even wondering about the philosophical perspective behind the film (what average people do), but I took the time to read this post. I started with part 2 first and then went on to part 1 because part 3 wasn't ready, and I think because I read it backwards I got a much better understanding of the message as a whole, then if I were to read part 1 first. Not having such foundations on Plato's life and barely understanding Vico's idea about microcosm (philosophy blind, you can sort of say). I think this film poses the question of what a romantic comedy is to an audience, as opposed to how and what we interpret the film to be, I think they're still experimenting on that one...

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