At first, many on the set thought Massimo Troisi was just being lazy. Not only would the star and cowriter of Il Postino (The Postman) show up hours late, but he'd make strange requests. Could he shoot his scenes sitting down? Or maybe leaning against something?
But the Neapolitan comedian wasn't slacking off. Troisi (pronounced Troy-EE-zee) was quietly battling a heart condition that was a result of a childhood bout of rheumatic fever. ''He knew he needed a transplant,'' says Postino director Michael Radford (White Mischief). ''But he was determined not to have one until this movie [was done].'' Of course, Il Postino, the Italian comedy that has become a word-of-mouth hit and America's most successful foreign-language film this year, did get made. But twelve hours after shooting finished and two days before he was to fly to London for a transplant the 41-year-old star died at his sister's house near Rome while taking a nap.
The artist who dies for his masterpiece. It's a story line Troisi would have rejected as too maudlin. Still, Il Postino is an uncharacteristically bittersweet work. After his start on Italy's version of Saturday Night Live in the '70s, Troisi appeared in 10 movies, injecting all with a self-deprecating, gesture-heavy humor that made him a top draw in his homeland.
But several years ago, Troisi read and fell in love with Burning Patience, a novel by Antonio Skarmeta in which a naive postman befriends the temporarily exiled Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and becomes smitten with poetry, partly because he thinks it will help him win over women. After cowriting the screenplay with Radford, he ignored his doctor's advice to get a transplant. Then, a week after filming began, he collapsed. Radford halted the film, but Troisi insisted on returning, and Radford relented a decision he now admits was selfish. At Troisi's funeral, 10,000 mourners showed up. ''When he died, people weren't sad,'' says Franco Schipani, an Italian TV producer who had worked with him. ''They were pissed off. They wanted to see more from him.''
Troisi thought he'd be doing more, too. Radford remembers the last day of shooting: ''He said, 'Look, I'm really sorry not to have given you my best, but I promise you, the next five, I will.' I just burst into tears, because I knew this guy was in for it.... The next day, Troisi said to his family, 'Radford is so sensitive. I was talking to him and he started to cry. I think we [made] a really good movie.'''
Indeed, Il Postino has become a critical and box office darling. And in the tradition of much larger summer movies, it even has a product tie-in: Miramax is hawking an accompanying CD with such stars as Madonna and Julia Roberts reading Neruda's poetry. On Labor Day weekend the movie will expand from its current 100 screens to approximately 250. ''It's a safe bet that it will do $10 million,'' says president of marketing Mark Gill. ''And $10 million for a foreign-language film is a blockbuster. It's like $200 million for an English-language film.'' Troisi may finally become an international star, a status that eluded him before his death.
''I'm sure he's somewhere laughing,'' says Jennifer Beals, who befriended Troisi when they worked on adjacent movie sets. ''Just knowing that his name is being pronounced or mispronounced by Americans must give him satisfaction.''