'Martin Eden': Film Review | Venice 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
A writer's rise and painful fall.

Italian director Pietro Marcello's film transfers Jack London's novel to 20th-century Naples.

Jack London’s bildungsroman Martin Eden, about an unschooled sailor who wants to become a writer after falling in love with an upper-class girl, gets a European makeover in the eponymous adaptation from iconoclastic Italian director Pietro Marcello (Lost and Beautiful). For starters, instead of Oakland, the titular character now lives in Naples (Marcello was born just down the road, in Caserta). And Martin — no, he’s not called Martino — is played, in a spectacular performance, by an always-intense Luca Marinelli, who is currently shooting the Netflix adaptation of The Old Guard with Charlize Theron and who is clearly destined for great things.

While the geography of this version of Eden, which was published as a novel in 1909, is extremely specific, the time frame is much harder to pin down, with various 20th century influences existing alongside even older material. And like Marcello’s breakout feature, the docu-fiction hybrid The Mouth of the Wolf, brief documentary excerpts are woven into the main narrative to provide local color or draw historical parallels and they, too, randomly jump back and forth in time. All that can be said with any certainty is that the story is set in the 20th century. 

Marcello’s Martin Eden works best when it concentrates on the protagonist’s very personal journey from Parthenopean Nobody to a determined writer fully in command of his language who knows he’ll make it big and then finally — and very much tragically — does. But Marcello never quite manages to shoehorn in both more than a century’s worth of European struggles and sociopolitical thinking and the full story of Eden’s downfall after he’s finally become successful. Indeed, these weighty concerns capsize the entire enterprise in the final stretch, where the story  runs aground on an iceberg of undigested ideas, barely developed themes and bad hair choices. 

This Venice competition title should attract some attention in co-producing France and Italy. But unless it wins a major award, it is more likely destined for home-viewing formats elsewhere despite its impressive production values and gorgeously textured 16mm cinematography. It is also the closing film of Toronto’s Platform sidebar.

The sailor Martin Eden (Marinelli) saves Arturo Orsini (Giustiniano Alpi), a young nobleman, from an assailant in the Naples harbor. He is invited to meet Arturo’s family at their mansion, which makes the working-class Eden feel, if not quite uncomfortable, at least very out of his element. (The early going gets quite a few chuckles out of his maladroit behavior.) When Martin meets the aristocrat’s porcelain-skinned sister, Elena (Jessica Cressy), he’s immediately smitten, even suggesting he can read French when they try to have a conversation about Baudelaire. Rather than a throwaway detail, the mention of the French poet is actually an inelegant foreshadowing of the kind of poete maudit that Eden himself will become in the future. 

Elena is not only beautiful and impeccably mannered, but also well educated. Eden thus sees just one way in which he’ll ever be allowed to marry her, which is to become a successful writer and thinker. The only hiccup is that he didn’t even finish primary school and that for him, as a working-class Neapolitan, becoming a writer in Italian is even more difficult because it is not his native language. Sadly, the subtitles make no attempt to differentiate between Neapolitan, Italian and French, which means that the linguistic subtext, and what it constantly says about class and education, is literally lost in translation for foreign audiences. 

Two people will accompany Martin on his way to becoming a published writer, the widow Maria (Carmen Pommella, wonderfully warm and down-to-earth), who gives him room and board, and the writer and editor Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi, in an extended cameo). The latter is not, like most other magazine owners and even Elena, skeptical about the (supposedly) radical, working-class contents of Martin’s writing. 

There’s a telling scene in which Martin and Elena come out of the cinema and she liked the film and he didn’t. It gave her hope as well as a familiar story, she says, while he didn’t think it reflected the misery of reality or said anything new. Harshly but perhaps not unjustly, he tells her: “Those who are always full can’t understand the misery of the hungry.” It feels like a moment in which philosophy, literature and the political and class struggles take the upper hand for Martin and his idealized love for her — call her Eden's Beatrice — starts to wane. Indeed, not much later, he’s picked up a lowly waitress (Denise Sardisco) instead. 

Interestingly, the couple’s conversation about the movie they saw doesn’t feel like a conduit for Marcello to try and say anything about his own cinema, which is neither fully familiar — though it does recycle a lot of styles and approaches from masters past — nor only interested in any kind of unfiltered and bleak reality. Quite the contrary, in fact, as all of his work is lush and lyrical even as it tries to explore complex and dark issues. This approach works surprisingly well for the first two-thirds of his latest film. The documentary footage sprinkled throughout is not only well-integrated — the color grader deserves some kind of award — but actually adds little daubs of contextual information that never intrude on the film's fictional arc. But because the film proper doesn’t have enough time to dig very deep into Eden’s growing and then gradually shifting philosophical thinking and there is no way of knowing what the work of Eden as a writer actually contains — a few stray phrases said out loud notwithstanding — Martin Eden’s sociopolitical and literary considerations finally feel very superficial. 

The maudit final act is set much later, after Eden has become a celebrated but unhappy writer. When it starts, it feels like the viewer needs to quickly run a couple of extra laps to catch up with what has happened during the ellipse and how this has possibly impacted Martin. But there’s little time and not enough evidence to figure out whether what Eden has always preached has suddenly become true and no longer being misunderstood has made him unhappy — or whether it is simply impossible to talk truthfully about the poor and exploited once you’ve become rich and successful and this is causing his anguished expressions, bad hair and terrible teeth. How his Darwinian take on socialism, much of it gleaned from the works of Herbert Spencer, figure into all this is also not entirely clear, though viewers will probably stop caring by the time they figure out Eden has done so, too.  

As suggested earlier, Marinelli is a force of nature in every scene and doesn’t play Eden so much as inhabit him. Even if the characterization isn’t always fully detailed on the script level, Marinelli ensures that the titular figure is always fully and credibly alive as a determined, foolhardily-in-love young man, an insatiable intellectual-in-the-making and a man bent on beating the odds and becoming a published writer however many of his manuscripts are returned to sender (it becomes an almost comical running gag). We might not fully understand why Martin is unhappy when he becomes a success, but Marinelli at least suggests he’s unhappy in every fiber of his being.  

All the other actors are bit players around this towering performance, playing second fiddle without there being a single false note in the orchestra. If only the same could have been said of the film’s screenplay. 

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)

Production companies: Avventurosa, IBC Movie, Rai Cinema, Match Factory Productions, Shellac Sud 

Cast: Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Denise Sardisco, Vincenzo Nemolato, Carmen Pommella, Carlo Cecchi

Director: Pietro Marcello

Screenplay: Maurizio Braucci, Pietro Marcello

Producers: Pietro Marcello, Beppe Caschetto, Thomas Ordonneau, Michael Weber, Viola Fuegen

Executive producers: Dario Zonta, Alessio Lazzareschi, Michel Merkt

Cinematography: Francesco Di Giacomo, Alessandro Abate

Production design: Tiziana Poli

Costume design: Andrea Cavalletto

Editing: Aline Herve, Fabrizio Federico

Music: Marco Messina, Sacha Ricci, Paolo Marzocchi

Sales: The Match Factory

In Italian, Neapolitan, French

No rating, 129 minutes