Martin Eden

 

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Pietro Marcello’s adaptation of Jack London’s semi-autobiographical novel proves to be an excitingly realised drama and impresses enormously – at least initially.

 

Martin Eden

Luca Marinelli

 

Given that the American novelist Jack London (1876-1916) was a radical socialist and an activist it is perhaps ironic that today he is best known as the author of the adventure tale The Call of the Wild. That is not the only work of his to have been filmed but in the case of Martin Eden, a novel much closer to his beliefs, this adaptation by Italy’s Pietro Marcello is the first since a forgotten film from 1942 starring Glenn Ford. Not knowing the novel, I cannot myself assess how faithful to the spirit of the original Marcello’s treatment is (he co-wrote it with Maurizio Braucci), but I am aware that there has been a strong difference of opinion on that point. However close Marcello may have been in keeping to the storyline, it is notable that he has chosen to free it from its period setting (the novel was written in 1909). As the film unfolds - the story now being set in Naples - footage is introduced to refer to events elsewhere that are part of later 20th century history. One finds too that props and clothing deliberately relate to not just one but to various decades, while the music used on the soundtrack sometimes includes pop songs drawn from another era. It is apparent that the aim was to suggest that the tale being told is a timeless one, relevant today just as it was in the past. To attempt such an approach is, however, taking a risk, but quite unexpectedly Marcello in what is only his second film with actors (his other pieces have been documentaries) shows that he has the skill to carry off this difficult task. Indeed, Martin Eden not only sets out with great assurance but soon leads one to recognise that Marcello is very talented (such details as his expressive use of close-ups is one illustration of that). Furthermore, one soon comes to regard his work here as having a truly personal signature.

 

If Marcello’s freshness of approach has its own appeal, it nevertheless remains the case that a tale such as this is a welcome change from most of today’s films due to the way in which the story evokes cinema of an earlier era. The titular figure is a sailor played by Luca Marinelli who comes to the rescue of a stranger, Arturo Orsini (Giustiniano Alpi) whom he sees being subjected to a violent beating. This leads to Martin being welcomed by the victim’s affluent family who quickly decide that the youthful Martin is in need of an education. They soon become aware of his interest in books which is feeding him with an ambition to become a writer himself and this encourages the family to act as his benefactors. The dreams that he now has for the future are also coloured by the fact that, although she is evidently far above him, Martin falls for Arturo’s beautiful sister, Elena (Jessica Cressy). He puts to one side his current girlfriend, Margherita (Denise Sardisco), and what follows is a study of a young man’s progress that readily makes the viewer empathise with him and his hopes. For one thing, although the Orsinis don’t see him as a suitable suitor for Elena, it is evident that Elena too is smitten thus giving Martin Eden another major thread as a love story.

 

Despite not having read the novel, I did approach this film with some prior knowledge as to how the story commenced and also with an awareness that Martin would come to develop political interests that would echo Jack London’s own once Martin had found a mentor in an elderly intellectual named Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi). It is indeed the case that the film then moves into areas that feature discussions of various political theories and the stance that is taken by Martin Eden is one portrayed as being influenced by the writings of Herbert Spencer. Hereabouts those already cognisant of these schools of thought may well have an advantage, but both Luca Marinelli (winner of a Best Actor award at 2019’s Venice Film festival) and Jessica Cressy give very assured performances. Consequently, even if the political arguments can be heavy-going, the main drama whether considered as a love story or as a tale of an artist’s advancement is compelling. The film is further aided by the inclusion of idiosyncratic, stylised touches brought into what might have been a standard period tale and carried off so brilliantly through Marcello’s direction.

 

But, if all this suggested that Martin Eden would be a work of some magnitude, that fact only added to my severe disappointment with the last quarter of the film. This section starts distractingly with a sudden jump-forward in time so that the flow of the narrative is lost. One change that comes over Martin now is clear enough: after his complete lack of success as a writer, he suddenly publishes a novel which wins him acclaim as the man of the moment. However, he also becomes disillusioned with society, a development that surely requires more fleshing out. It may end up very differently but, as a story of a youth who loses his rebellious instincts when drawn into bourgeois society, it recalls Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution (1964). That film carried one through effectively to its own concept of a tragic denouement, but Martin Eden, in addition to losing some of its individuality of style in its later scenes, fails to retain our concern for its central characters. When the film reaches its own tragic conclusion, I found that I felt nothing at all. For me there could be no clearer sign that the film had gone off the rails. Nevertheless, there is so much here that is excitingly individual that one will be fascinated to discover what Pietro Marcello does next.  

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Vincenzo Nemolato, Marco Leonardi, Denise Sardisco, Carmen Pommella, Autilia Ranieri, Elisabetta Valgoi, Pietro Ragusa, Carlo Cecchi, Giustiniano Alpi.


Dir Pietro Marcello, Pro Pietro Marcello, Beppe Caschetto, Thomas Ordonneau, Michael Weber and Viola Fügen, Screenplay Maurizio Braucci and Pietro Marcello, from the novel by Jack London, Ph Francesco Di Giacomo and Alessandro Abate, Art Dir Tiziana Poli, Ed Aline Hervé and Fabrizio Federico, Music Marco Messina, Costumes Andrea Cavalletto.


Avventurosa/IBC Movie/Rai Cinema/Shellac Sud/Match Factory Productions-New Wave Films.
129 mins. Italy/France/Germany/Greece. 2019. Rel: 9 July 2021. Cert. 15.