MARTIN EDEN
(****)-VITO CARLI

"...feels like an instant classic."

Jack London with Spaghetti Sauce

(103120) Martin Eden is a marvelous, psychologically complex intellectual coming of age drama from Italy about an impoverished man who is continually stepped on by everyone. He decides to seize power and gains celebrity status plus literary credibility in a negative way. See below for a link to the Music Box's Virtual Theater, where the subtitled film is currently available for viewing.

In terms of the basic plotline, the film bears a slight similarity to Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, and the recent Joker film, but this film is much more dialogue driven and has a completely different tone. This is the second recent film that was based on a novel by Jack London (the other one was Call of the Wild which starred Harrison Ford) Over a dozen of London’s novels have been adapted into films including a silent version of Martin Eden in 1914. The clever and engaging script was written by Maurizio Braucci and the director. Both the film and novel are highly autobiographical and the film’s antihero protagonist is a sailor with little formal education (although the real London was highly educated) who wants to win over a rich girl. But the film alters the time period and setting of the film from early 20th century California to later 20th century Naples. It is hard to say when exactly the film takes place because the film uses time signifiers from different decades like David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

 Director Pietro Marcello is mostly known for making documentaries (he's made eight since 2005) but he also directed the well-received but little seen drama: Lost and Beautiful. In Martin Eden he uses a combination of neorealist and new wave techniques and the film comes off as a classic movie from the great era of art films (1950-65) that we all somehow missed. Marcello incorporates archival footage instead of traditional establishing shots which is highly reminiscent of similar scenes in the 50s films of neorealist masters such as Vittorio De Sica, Giuseppi De Santis, Luchino Visconti, and Roberto Rossellini.

The story starts when a sailor named Martin happens upon a fight and he helps a man defeat an attacker. The man he saves, Arturo, turns out to be rich and shows his gratitude by inviting Martin to a dinner at his parents’ house. Martin is impressed and transfixed by Arturo’s family’s extreme wealth and wishes he could share in the good life. But even more importantly he meets Arturo’s beautiful and cultured sister, Elena (played by Jessica Cressy) and he immediately falls for her even though he is uncultured, and she must constantly correct his grammar. He decides that he wants to read and learn as much as possible and better himself so he can be worthy of her love.

She helps him along the way, and she teaches him all about Baudelaire’s poetry among other things. After he reads more, and becomes immersed in a life of the intellect, and he decides to become a writer. He gets tons of rejection letters at first, and it becomes clear to most of the people around him that his writing can’t support Elena’s lavish lifestyle. He may eventually have to choose between the woman he loves (he is as obsessed with her as Gatsby was for Daisy) and his vocation. His brother in law offers him a menial job and a way out of poverty, but now that Martin has broadened his intellectual horizons, he sees the man as a boor and the work as beneath him.

Eventually, Martin meets a hedonistic older poet named Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi) who introduces him to a bohemian lifestyle (he is like an Italian version of a beat writer). Brissendon helps to radicalize him and set him in the right direction. He also begins to immerse himself in the writings of Herbert Spencer and begins spouting evolutionary philosophy and begins the people too are evolving. Martin learns the power of the written word and he starts to believe in Nietzschean philosophy which goes directly against his mentor who is a collectivist.

But when Martin gets his first taste of success, he for some reason finds it all hollow (The protagonists’ in The Great Gatsby or American Beauty have similar feelings when they achieved their goals .) He feels like he was pulled in two directions between the working-class people he grew up and the “phonies” in the upper class.

The film is an unexpectedly convincing and unflinching portrait of the birth of a fascist mindset. Although viewers will sympathize with Martin up until a certain point, they will no doubt be as horrified by the wrong turns he takes, as I was, and they will recoil at the squandering of his great potential.

The film opened to great critical acclaim last year in Europe, and it was selected to compete in the Golden Lion in the 76th Venice International Film Festival. Also, Luca Marinelli (who was also in The Old Guard) won the Volpi Cup there for Best Actor. I know there have been fewer releases in 2020, but Luca’s broad, multi layered performance was the best I have seen so far this year, and the film is also in the running (at least for me) for best film of the year.

Although no one knows how well a work of art will age, upon first viewing, Martin Eden sure feels like an instant classic.
 

Directed by:   Pietro Marcello
Written by:   Screenplay by Maurizio Braucci & Pietro Marcello. Based on the novel by Jack London
Starring:   Luca Marinelli, Carlo Cecchi, Jessica Cressy
Released:   090420 in Italy,101620 limited US theatrical release
Length:   129 minutes
Rating:   Unrated

You can currently view this movie at this website:
https://musicboxtheatre.com/films/martin-eden

 

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org and www.chicagopoetry.org. His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

MARTIN EDEN © 2020  Avventurosa
Review © 2020 Alternate Reality, Inc.