The opening moments of Martin Eden feature a collection of documentary footage filmed in 1921, in the Italian port city of Savona: a crowd of workers waving flags at a rally, a train rumbling toward its destination. These fleeting glimpses of a young, still-industrializing century have been folded into a fictional story that appears to be taking place sometime later, judging by some of the inventions we see: a magnetic tape recorder, a television set. But it’s the conceit of this vibrant and passionate film, directed with incredible vigor by Pietro Marcello, that no meaningful difference between past and present or between fiction and nonfiction, really exists. It’s as if the whole 20th century had been distilled, or scrambled, into an eternal now.
Where are we? When are we? This disorientation is very much the film’s point and one of its many pleasures. Jack London’s novel of the same title was published in 1909, a marker that proves as insignificant here as the book’s Northern California setting. In relocating the action to the Campania region of southern Italy and deliberately muddling the time frames, Marcello and his cowriter, Maurizio Braucci, pursue a wilder, more radical kind of faithfulness. The novel was already its own semi-autobiographical hall of mirrors, refracting London’s rise-and-fall journey through that of a restless, misguided and intensely captivating stand-in. This movie adaptation attempts an even bolder transformation: luminously shot by Francesco Di Giacomo and Alessandro Abate on 16mm, it’s both a richly textured story of formation and a rambling cultural and historical panorama.
Perhaps most of all, it’s a dazzling showcase for Luca Marinelli, whose magnetic performance in the title role earned him the best actor prize at last year’s Venice International Film Festival. You might have seen Marinelli recently (underutilized) as one of the immortal warriors in The Old Guard, but here he offers a different picture of a man out of step with his moment. Martin seems in his element at first; he’s a towering physical specimen, a handsome, strapping sailor who delights in the open sea but proves just as comfortable on land, where he spends one night romancing a local beauty (Denise Sardisco). He awakens the next morning on the pier, just in time to defend a young man from being detained by a guard. That young man, Arturo Orsini (Giustiniano Alpi), repays Martin by inviting him to his wealthy family’s estate, which overflows with books, paintings and sculptures. Martin is awestruck by these pieces of high culture and also by Arturo’s beautiful sister, Elena (an excellent Jessica Cressy), who looks with gentle amusement — but also with real, avid feeling — at this young man with his rough manners, muscular build and thrilling liveliness. Elena introduces him to painter Baudelaire, corrects his grammar and encourages him to get an education. Martin sets out to do just that, becoming a voracious reader and, in time, aspiring writer, in hopes that it will make him worthy of Elena’s mind and heart.
One of the novel’s best qualities is how expertly it dramatizes Martin’s intellectual hunger, a lust for knowledge that matches and sometimes even surpasses his desire for the woman he loves. It’s a tougher thing for a film to convey, but this one comes closer than one could imagine. Martin’s traversing through the village of knowledge is measured not only in the books he carts around but also in his travels through the countryside and the back-breaking jobs he takes on to support his writing. It’s also measured in the French phrases he practices with Elena, his near-comical stream of rejection letters from publishers and the blaze of excitement in his piercing blue eyes, whether he’s peering down at his typewriter or out into a world that seems, for the first time, within his grasp. Not that the world makes it easy. Martin lives with an older sister and a loathsome brother-in-law who belittle his studies and ultimately kick him out. Education might be liberating but it comes at a far greater cost to Martin than it does to the Orsinis, who regard his aspirations with a nod at best (Elena) and scornfully at worst (her parents). His lower-class origins are a burden, a source of shame, resentment and despair. They are also a source of solidarity, as demonstrated by Maria (Carmen Pommella), a kindly widow who takes him in, and as preached by Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), an aging, irritable writer who urges Martin to align himself and his writing with the socialist cause.
Martin is thus pulled in many directions by dueling philosophies and political worldviews — a tension that Marinelli captures in a performance of furious physicality and relentless determination, his will hardening more and more scene after scene. Once he gets his first story published, it doesn’t take long for him to become a literary sensation or for his satisfaction to sour into disillusionment. The polarities of his experience have essentially canceled each other out: He is now too loftily educated for his working-class kin but he is also disgusted by the cultural elites whose tastes and manners he has learned to appropriate. Martin’s beauty seems to waste away before us; his skin pales, his teeth rot and his eyes, once so alive, become clouded with self-loathing. Time, so loose and undefined until now, suddenly seems to have speed up, bearing down on Martin and ushering him toward his tragic fate. An ostensible success story that becomes a chronicle of human failure, Martin Eden was in some sense Jack London’s own thinly veiled self-indictment; in another sense, it was an attack on the cultural industry that shaped his destiny. Most of all it was his condemnation of individualism, a point lost on most readers who feel under the spell of his wayward hero. Marcello’s approach is nuanced but unambiguous: By allowing time to fold in on itself, engaging history itself as his subject, he speaks as much to the present as to the past.
Over the past two decades, Marcello has made a number of small and acclaimed formally inventive documentaries. But Martin Eden sees him with a vastly more ambitious canvas, with the director’s fracturing of form continuing. Here he channels both the tactile, empathetic spirit of Italian neorealism and, through his restless editing (from Aline Hervé and Fabrizio Federico), the stylistic energy of the French New Wave — two film movements that were keen on exploding familiar cinematic conventions and speaking to audiences with a revelatory new transparency. That faded but impeccably color-graded archival footage we see at the beginning is woven into Martin’s journey throughout, in moments that fondly evoke his childhood memories. But they are also an homage to cinema itself, the most democratic of art forms, and its ability to reflect the commonality of all human experience.
That ability is pointedly called into question in one remarkable sequence, in which Martin and Elena emerge from a cinema arguing over the movie they just saw. She loves the movie’s hopefulness, while he sees it as a sentimental lie, a reminder of how rarely art captures the brutal rawness of life. “Culture and emancipation shall have nothing to do with each other!” he declares, not without good reason: culture, after all, so often feeds on the experiences of the downtrodden, only to be consumed by an aristocratic few. But hopefulness and rawness, much like society and self, are ultimately inseparable in Martin Eden, a work of art that marinates in its own beautiful contradictions. It might reject individualism, but it’s gloriously singular. A sumptuous fable of social tragedy, Martin Eden is classical filmmaking at its most invigorating; both robustly beautifully and enthrallingly alive, it’s an utterly remarkable picture.
Martin Eden is available in virtual cinemas