There’s nothing like a good rags-to-riches story to warm the heart, because who doesn’t like to see a worthy hero triumphing over obstacles? You get the opportunity to vicariously share in the hero’s victories while remaining assured that the world is fair and just, with the hero’s triumphs supplying supporting evidence for that point of view. “God’s in his heaven–all’s right with the world!” as Robert Browning’s heroine puts it in the closet drama Pippa Passes, and that’s a reassuring sentiment to hold in a world that in reality is anything but.
Hence, the evergreen appeal of Jack London’s autobiographical novel Martin Eden, first published in 1909, which has served as source material for at least four feature-length films and two television adaptations. The latest entry, Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden, gives London’s novel the epic treatment, running just over two hours, incorporating a variety of materials, and partaking of diverse time periods. Holding it all together are a charismatic performance of Luca Marinelli in the title role, outstanding 16mm photography by Alessandro Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo, and a varied soundtrack by Marco Messina and Sacha Ricchi.
When we first meet Martin, he’s a moody sailor, given to scribbling in a notebook and clearly aiming at something more than a life of hard labor. Opportunity comes his way via an introduction to a wealthy family after he rescues the family’s son Arturo (Giustiniano Apli) from a dockyard beating. Martin falls hard for Arturo’s sister Elena (Jessica Cressy), who takes an interest in this earnest young man while also suggesting that he needs to resume his education (Martin did not complete primary school) if he aims for a career as a writer. He accepts her loan of a grammar book, but his school interview doesn’t go well (he’s more interested in talking about what he wants to talk about than in answering the questions posed), and he decides to pursue a course of self-education by reading whatever he can get his hands on.
All that reading doesn’t leave time for holding down a job, so Martin sponges off his brother-in-law Bernardo (Marco Leonardi), all the time scorning Bernardo for actually working for a living. After Bernardo kicks him out, Martin is taken in by Maria (Carmen Pommella), a widowed single mother who believes in his talent and is just (unlike him) an all-around good and kind person. Martin does eventually achieve success with his writing, but he blows it with Elena by becoming associated with the socialist movement, just one example among many of his penchant for self-destruction. The final third of the film takes on a new tone while revealing that perhaps what Martin wanted all the time was not the triumph of the working man, but to become a member of the elite himself—while retaining the prerogative to criticize them, because self-awareness is not his strong point. He’s also oblivious to his own toxic masculinity, which can make the film hard to take, as one woman after another is conveniently willing to accept his abuse while providing emotional and material support, and in some cases sexual favors as well.
For all that’s good in Martin Eden, it can also be a tough watch, particularly if you come to the picture expecting a heroic biopic in the traditional Hollywood style. To say that Martin is a jerk would be an understatement, which robs his film of some of its vicarious pleasures. The story has been transposed to Naples, which is fine, and the time period has been left indefinite (there are allusions through music and fashion to multiple periods, without much rhyme or reason), which works less well. London’s original novel is rooted in historical specificities, and taking those away robs the story of much of its power. In his defense, Marcello seems to be going for something more impressionistic than a straight-ahead retelling of the story, as he salts in pictorial montages and clips from archival footage, sometimes also tinting the “contemporary” footage to make it monochrome (scare quotes because it’s seldom clear what time period we’re in, so I’m just referring to the time of Martin’s story as it is being told on the screen). The end result is a film that, for all its strong points, can feel at times like an endurance contest.| Sarah Boslaugh
Martin Eden is distributed for home viewing through Kino Marquee, beginning Oct. 16. Viewers within Missouri can access the film through the website of the Moxie Cinema in Springfield, MO; it is also available (regardless of view location) through the website of Kino Marquee.