Hollywood loved 'Il Postino' - so why don't the Italians?

OSCAR FEVER is sweeping Italy. There have been five major nominations for Il Postino, and another in the best foreign film category for Giuseppe Tornatore's L'Uomo delle Stelle. But the mood is not universally jubilant. One might have thought such recognition could only gladden the heart of a cinematic nation struggling to recover its former glory, but in fact the Italian critics, and quite a few ordinary Italians, seem almost embarrassed by the adulation.

"All right, I suppose we ought to celebrate," was the grudging reaction of one critic, Irene Bignardi of La Repubblica.

"An unexpected and excessive show of generosity," said Gloria Satta of Il Messaggero.

Why such coyness? After all, a foreign-language film hasn't made it into the Best Picture category since Bergman's Cries and Whispers in 1973, and no Italian has been nominated for a top acting award since Sophia Loren in the early 1960s. What's more, Il Postino has been both a critical and a box-office success, winning rave reviews around the world for its tender depiction of the friendship between a modest island postman and the exiled Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.

But for the Italians, this is all beside the point. It's not so much that they don't like their own film - although most domestic critics were more muted than their foreign counterparts. It's just that Il Postino holds a special place in their hearts, which makes it hard, perhaps impossible, for them to remain level-headed.

Reception of the film in Italy was entirely overshadowed by the death of its star, Massimo Troisi, a popular comic actor and director who died of heart failure at the age of 41 just 12 hours after completing the last scene.

No Italian could sit through Il Postino without being mesmerised by the quiet intensity of Troisi's performance, without recognising his characteristic Neapolitan tics and fraught sense of understatement, without wincing at the pain registering on his tired face as he put every ounce of strength he had left into the part.

In fact Troisi, who had had a heart valve replaced a year earlier, could work only an hour or two a day during filming, and had his personal cardiologist on hand at all times. Friends and colleagues begged him not to continue with the project, but he insisted the show had to go on and refused to discuss his health at all.

Troisi was popular in the entertainment industry, but he was also a very individualistic person who hated awards ceremonies and the hype that goes with stardom. When the Italian film establishment tried to honour him with a special posthumous award last year, his family refused it, saying they wanted nothing to do with people "who have nothing to do with real cinema, who are in mourning because they can no longer make their fortunes with the talents of others".

When the Oscar bonanza came around, there was a similar feeling: that Hollywood, with its multi-million dollar promotion budgets and schlock sentimentalism, was trying to appropriate Troisi's life and death for its own purposes.

As a result, much of the reactions to the success of Il Postino has gone easy on self-congratulation and come down rather severely on the Oscars themselves. "It would be nice if the Academy didn't just focus on attractive, tender, simple feelings but also took note of good cinema," said Irene Bignardi, in a piece incredulous at the omission of Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Woody Allen from this year's nominations.

So is Il Postino not good cinema? In a country whose previous Oscar successes have included undisputed classics by Fellini and De Sica, the choice of such a slight story - and directed by a non-Italian, Michael Radford, at that - does indeed look like a lapse in taste. To domestic audiences, the simple, rustic, somewhat nostalgic picture it paints of Italy (something it shares with a previous Oscar-winner, Cinema Paradiso) seems just a bit too much like a tourist-brochure caricature.

"A modest film is what it was, and a modest film is what it remains," wrote Alberto Crespi, critic for L'Unita. Just the thing, in other words, to sweep the board in Los Angeles on 25 March.

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