“Martin Eden” opens with a revelation: “So, the world is stronger than me.” The impetus behind the whispered truth slowly comes into focus as the story unfolds, cynicism and celebrity impounding hope and humility. Amidst the voiceover, the class struggle at the film’s core is depicted through the warped, incinerating lens of archival celluloid footage of the proletariat in early twentieth century Naples, Italy—an odd surprise for anyone expecting scenery of Oakland, California, the original location of Jack London’s 1909 novel of the same name. It’s less of a surprise for anyone familiar with co-writer and director Pietro Marcello, a stellar Italian documentarian who’s made a career out of pointing his camera at the people in his home country.
This isn’t Marcello’s first narrative feature, but 2015’s “Lost and Beautiful” was largely underseen outside of the festival circuit, which makes “Martin Eden” somewhat of a seminal first for Marcello in reach and scope. And the purview of the adaptation rises to the challenge, the incredible depth of character, theme, and tone sweeping viewers across a wide range of thought and emotion. The quixotic, frequently angry and even epic Künstlerroman tale of “Martin Eden” is the tale of artistic comeuppance, a rags-to-riches rise that’s somewhat autobiographical for Marcello, a self-taught filmmaker in his own right.
We meet Martin (Luca Marinelli) in the open sea, where his dreams can run wild in the vast, seemingly eternal grandeur of the horizon. He’s a back-busting sailing hand that doesn’t fit the salty gruff of the stereotype; instead, he gives off nautical Richie Tenenbaum vibes, always crouched against the rails or pacing around the relatively small vessel, romanticizing about unrealistic ambitions. The canvas billowing above him forms a two-fold metaphor in that it’s a blank page for the aspiring author that will catch wind and take him where he wants to go.
Martin is entrenched in the lower-class yet fascinated with the education and artistry of those at the top of the socio-economic food chain. He’s an audacious, charming, handsome, innocent, and passionate man drowning in naïveté as a result of his lack of education. After saving a boy named Arturo (Giustiniano Alpi) from a beating on the pier, Martin returns him home to the palatial Orsini estate where he resides with the rest of his bourgeois family—who introduces Martin to and lightly trains him in high culture—including his sultry sister Elena (Jessica Cressy), who becomes Martin’s lifelong muse upon first glance.
His obsession with Elena is only bested by his diligence in educating himself. He flees the unaffordable city center and takes up refuge on the outskirts of town where he can write and study philosophy, politics, economics, and social theory in transfixed isolation. He spends his petty income on books and receives rejection letters for his writing like Harry Potter receives a flood of acceptance letters from Hogwarts.
Marcello brilliantly captures the circular nature of the perpetual expanse between the working class and the elite in the dense characterization of his subjects and the dialogue surrounding the rejection of Martin’s early writing: it’s too crass, too forthright, too depressing, too vulgar, too real. In other words, the wealthy don’t want to read about the woes of the poor. If the elite cling to pleasantries and happy endings, and the proletariat is too strapped with the upkeep of basic human necessities to have access to education and, as a result, higher culture, the gap between the two will only grow, and the inhumanity that stems from that gap will continue to be reflected in the policies, economics, and social norms of the ruling class that writes the laws and runs the institutions of society.
“I like my cinema to remain anchored in the moral questions I constantly ask myself,” Marcello admitted in a candid interview during the Venice International Film Festival. He, like Martin in his own time, is concerned with the roles neoliberalism, socialism, fascism, populism, and other political isms play in our world today, and how they might affect the way one understands natural law, moral law, freedom, justice, and human value. Of course, his class ruminations are indebted to De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves,” but “Martin Eden” is a far cry from a slow, neo-realist carbon copy of the classic.
The tense, emotional energy behind Martin’s archetypal European hero’s journey (think: Faust, Hamlet) is expressive, dynamic, and experimental at times. Marinelli’s performance is immaculately layered and positions him in the spotlight as the upcoming sensation he is (he took home the Coppa Volpi Prize for Best Actor in Venice for a reason). The music ranges from bright, bouncy piano accompaniment reminiscent of Ryuichi Sakamoto to pop music to throbbing, low-range electronica. The sizzling grain of the 16mm cinematography in concert with the spiraling feral drama conjures a tonal undercurrent of Golden Age Hollywood while still feeling modern and relevant. The tactile sepia and silvery-blue imagery of archival footage that cuts in and out of scenes float between peripheral, historical flashback and tasteful metaphor.
As Martin’s exposure grows, his passion devolves into histrionic outbursts, his charm mutates into nausea, and his teeth literally begin to decay. In Marcello and co-writer Maurizio Braucci’s holistic adaptation of the nominal character’s arc, Martin’s yearning to become “one of the eyes through which the world sees” becomes a poignant warning cry for anyone who digs their nails too deep in the reality of class relations without balancing the hopelessness it brings with the hope of human connection. Without hope, without people, such an abundance of knowledge can only derail one into maddening disgust for life that renders all social, political, and economic concerns moot.
“They always show films of stories we know,” Martin complains to a disagreeing Elena as they walk out of a movie theater. “People need to laugh!” she asserts in defense, echoing the capital-driven excuses of present-day studio executives that greenlight empty, homogenous blockbusters more akin to Huxley’s soma for the masses than compelling art. Among all else, Marcello’s re-telling of “Martin Eden” is an indictment of pandering art, much like James Gray or Martin Scorsese’s call to a more challenging, illuminating, and thoughtful expression of filmmaking. And it’s dazzling ambit goes to show that such films aren’t limited by that directive, so much as they are set free by it.
9.87GB | 2 h 8 min | 1920×1080 | mkv