Bill Clinton and Al Gore are big fans of the film "Il Postino." Both men bought copies of the book from which the screenplay was adapted, according to columnist Liz Smith, and Clinton even went so far as to buy as a birthday present for Hillary a copy of "Love, Ten Poems by Pablo Neruda," amatory odes by the Chilean poet who inspired the film.
Nominated for an Oscar as best movie of the year, "Il Postino" is the semifictitious tale of a mail carrier who is befriended by the communist poet Neruda, who has been forced into exile in Italy because of threats by a right-wing government at home. Cyrano-like, Neruda helps the subliterate postman express his passion for a woman he loves. Neruda also lends his ideas, and after Neruda has returned to Chile, the mailman participates in a communist rally and is killed.
"Il Postino" is a charming, humorous film. But at a time when we are concerned about the issue of filmmakers' debt to history and their responsibility to the truth, the real-life backdrop of "The Postman" should be of interest to the president, vice president and members of the Motion Picture Academy.
Much of the later renown of Neruda (born Neftali Reyes) in the non-Latino world came not from his poetry but from the reputation he acquired as a Chilean diplomat defending the embattled republican forces in their struggle against Franco during the Spanish Civil War. But Neruda was anything but a freedom fighter.
In 1939, after the fall of the republic, hundreds of thousands of Spaniards fled the Franco regime, many crossing into France over the Pyrenees Mountains. The Spanish republican government in exile had amassed considerable money for the transport of these refugees to America. But the decision about who would be fortunate enough to gain safe passage fell to agents of the international Soviet front organization Comintern, and historians estimate that close to 90% of applications from non-communist defenders of the Spanish republic were rejected.
On the ship Winnipeg, chartered by the Chilean government to rescue the exiles, Neruda played the role of a reverse Schindler. Using his official status as diplomat, Neruda made sure that passports to board the Winnipeg went to refugees who shared his politics and beliefs, which were those of Josef Stalin. The rejected refugees were then condemned to internment or death in France, which by then was falling into the hands of Hitler's rapidly advancing armies.
Neruda's services to Stalin did not end with this sorry episode. In May 1940, the Mexican communist muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, in a preview of a successful assassination three months later, led a mass armed attack on the Mexican residence of Leon Trotsky, in which an American guard was kidnapped and murdered. Siqueiros, facing nine separate criminal charges, was released on bail. But soon after, Neruda helped arrange for him to get a Chilean passport. Siqueiros immediately fled Mexico, thus squelching a major part of the Trotsky murder investigation. For the rest of his life, Neruda expressed his undiluted pride in this action.
He also never bothered to hide his great enthusiasm for Stalin. Upon Stalin's death in 1953, he wrote a heartfelt threnody declaring:
To be men! That is the Stalinist law!
. . . We must learn from Stalin
his sincere intensity
his concrete clarity
. . . Stalin is the noon,
the maturity of man and the peoples.
Stalinists, Let us bear this title with pride.
. . . Stalinist workers, clerks, women
take care of this day!
The light has not vanished.
The fire has not disappeared.
. . . A wave
beats against the stones of the shore.
But Malenkov will continue his work.
This poem remains in print in Neruda's Spanish-language collected works. It has been excised from anthologies of his work in English, for obvious reasons.
Neruda's legacy is a dark one. This is true historically and in "Il Postino." For the Clintons and other fans of the film, it may seem that Neruda had taught the simple Italian mailman nothing more or less than how to speak of love. But the vocabulary he left behind when he returned to Chile had to do as much with communist politics as with matters of the heart. And this language led directly to the unfortunate postman's death. In this subtext, at least, "Il Postino" captures a profound truth.