also showing: Easy as nailing eggs together

IL POSTINO Michael Radford (U) MORTAL KOMBAT Paul Anderson (15) 23:58 Pierre-William Glenn (no cert) CANADIAN BACON Michael Moore (PG)
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Whenever cinema and poetry meet, the liaison is invariably punctuated by yawning silences where neither party knows exactly what to say or how to say it. The most visionary directors have caught the essence of poetry, of course; more people plumped for Shakespeare's Sonnets in the National Poetry Day vote than would deny the poetry of Vigo or Renoir. But committing the medium itself to film is as simple as nailing two eggs together. Dead Poets Society, Tom & Viv, Poetic Justice - all have failed to render the passion of poetry without lapsing into the prosaic.

The 1990 version of Cyrano de Bergerac was an exception. And like the character of Christian in that film, the naive postman Mario (Massimo Troisi) in the new Il Postino thinks that poetry is a short-cut to true love. (The script does nothing to dissuade him; it's a pity it couldn't have followed him into the 1960s, just so we could witness his first tart taste of Philip Larkin.)

Il Postino takes a factual scenario as its basis: in 1952, the poet Pablo Neruda (played by Philippe Noiret) was exiled from Chile after the country's Communist Party, of which he was a prominent member, was made illegal. He was allowed sanctuary on an island off the coast of Naples, where he enjoyed a brief friendship with his postman.

From there, the film soars off into whimsical romantic fantasy. When Mario lands the job delivering mountains of mail from Neruda's adoring female fans, his dreams swell. "The poet loved by women," he muses wistfully. "The poet loved by the people," his Communist boss corrects him.

But Mario is right - Neruda is a real charmer. And encouraged by his goofy fan's enthusiasm, he chats about metaphors and similes until Mario starts concocting his own in order to woo the forbidding Beatrice (Maria Graza Cucinotta).

There is vague dissent at Neruda's arrival, but the film doesn't need to contrive a conflict in order to progress. It just relies on its actors. Noiret is modest and unfussy; Troisi, at the heart of the film, is enchanting. He masters the cautious speech patterns that betray those uncertain of their own mind, and conveys a beguiling boyishness with a few judicious bats of his lashes. His lightly comic sensitivity suggests the late Andy Kaufman, a not altogether random comparison given that Troisi, too, died comparitively young - at 41, immediately after Il Postino finished shooting, in fact. You'd never guess that this portrayal of a man plunging into life was wrung from an actor facing death.

The film manages a sober argument for the importance of poetry in everyday life, without once resorting to schoolboys standing on desks quoting Walt Whitman. When Beatrice's gnarly old aunt pleads with Neruda to keep Mario away from her niece, she invokes metaphor after metaphor to substantiate her tirade, utilising the very language she is damning. The scene has a generous subtext: poetry is woven into us, and into our lives, whether or not we choose to recognise it. A rose by any other name, and all that jazz.

Il Postino is the first feature by the British director Michael Radford since 1987's White Mischief. And although he has spent the intervening period working in the industry, the film has the zest of a long, cool shower after years in the wilderness. Radford seems relaxed; he doesn't even exploit the blue mountains which loom above Neruda's villa. Some of the picture's most telling moments are peripheral. When Mario's near- mute father finally babbles at his son's wedding, everyone is too absorbed by food and chatter to hear him. And if the florid language becomes too much, as it does, there are specks of grit to sour the pill. The postmaster gets the most stinging line: "Beatrice may be pretty now," he tells Mario bluntly, "but in 50 years she'll be as ugly as all the rest." Poetry, sheer poetry.

You'll look hard for more of the same this week. Mortal Kombat is the latest computer game to be shoehorned into film format. Such games thrive on interactivity, so watching the movie is like peering over someone's shoulder in an arcade, while heavy metal is blasted in your ears and a strobe light thrust into both eyes. Bring back thumb-screws and electric cattle-prods, I say. The film has only Christopher Lambert in its favour, as a time-lord in a dressing-gown and a stack of silver hair, like an intergalactic Bea Arthur.

23:58 is a heist thriller so in thrall to other heist thrillers that it negates itself. Set at the Le Mans 24-hour race, it has two former motorcycle stars stealing the race's takings. The superintendent on their trail is a movie buff who uses his knowledge of The Killing to crack the case. But when it's over, all you can recall is the brilliance of Kubrick's film.

The Clintonesque president (Alan Alda) in Canadian Bacon realises that peace doesn't equal prosperity - he needs a conflict to up his popularity rating. But who could play enemy since the Cold War ended? Try Canada. The writer-director Michael Moore (who made Roger and Me, and the series TV Nation) has hit on a sharp idea for a skit - that, with enough propaganda, we could be suckered into warring with anyone. The satire is too toothless to draw blood, though, while the mildly starry cast (John Candy, Rhea Perlman, Steven Wright) are surprisingly obtrusive. There's a neat scene where advisers sift through potential un-American enemies: "Khomeini? Dead. Brezhnev? Dead. Jane Fonda? Reformed". A few years back, Moore might have included himself on the list, but he's a threat to no one now.

n On release from tomorrow

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