This past awards season, Harvey Weinstein launched a brilliant campaign and helped sweep THE KING’S SPEECH into the Oscar winners circle. (Some marvelous acting and an emotionally rich story didn’t hurt either.) Back in 1995, when he was head of Miramax, Weinstein and the “Miramax marketing machine” first showed their marketing chops with the tender Italian film IL POSTINO. Ridiculously retitled The Postman for stupid U.S. audiences that are either frightened or turned off by foreign words (DANGEROUS LIAISONS anyone?), the film stars Massimo Troisi as a simple postman who delivers mail to Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret), the famous Chilean poet who is exiled for political reasons to the small Italian island. Through his friendship with Neruda, poorly educated Mario (Troisi) uses his new-found love of poetry to woo the local beauty, Beatrice (Maria Grazia Cucinotta).
The film received five nominations, including one for Best Picture and two posthumous nods for Troisi (who died just hours after filming had finished) for lead actor and as one of the adapting screenwriters. Miramax made the most of Troisi’s untimely death and the fact that Italy was not submitting the film for Foreign Language Film (since the film was released in 1994, it couldn’t have been nominated in the category in 1995 anyway). It became the highest-grossing foreign film to date.
The story is slim, but Michael Radford’s gentle directorial touch and Troisi’s transparent, tender performance make the film a winner, while Luis Bacalov‘s lilting, Oscar-winning score adds just the right touch of Italian flavor. Bacalov was brought on to the project after Ennio Morricone and other composers turned down the film. In order for the film to participate in the Venice Film Festival, he had to write the score quickly.
Bacalov said in interviews at the time that he found the character of Beatrice to be “a sort of Carmen,” which in turn inspired his Spanish/Latin-American tango-flavored score. Using a spare orchestration of bandoneon (a cousin to the accordion), guitar, harpsichord, simple percussion, strings and woodwinds, Bacalov’s poignant music evokes a wonderful sense of time and place, enhancing the slender story without overwhelming it.
Though foreign film scores had occasionally been nominated in the past, Bacalov’s Oscar opened the door for future international scores to win, including LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. Most film score fans would probably pick one of James Horner’s two nominated scores—APOLLO 13 or BRAVEHEART. While those scores may be more compositionally challenging, Bacalov’s simple, tuneful score perfectly captures the emotion of this heartwarming story. In 2010, Mexican composer Daniel Catán adapted the story for the Los Angeles Opera, starring Charles Castronovo and Plácido Domingo.