Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden is getting a limited release in Sydney and Melbourne but it deserves a much bigger audience. It’s a huge film – not in terms of running length, but in its themes, its characters and ambitions – the latest in an outstanding sequence of foreign-language titles that have overshadowed anything produced by Hollywood in a debiltating year. Movies such as Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round (which took out the Oscar for Best International Feature Film), and Pablo Larraín’s electrifying Ema, have been among the highlights. Martin Eden continues the trend. The New York Times recently declared it the best film of 2020.
The story is based on a 1909 novel by Jack London, known for his ‘dog’ book, The Call of the Wild (1903). London was once a world-wide bestseller and his writing still has the power to thrill. Martin Eden is an autobiographical work that recalls London’s own desperate efforts to break through as a writer.
Marcello has transposed the action from Oakland, in the San Francisco Bay area, to Naples. What he has done with the chronology is anyone’s guess as it sometimes seems we’re in the Belle Époque, sometimes between the wars, or even later. Bursts of old newsreel footage are artfully inserted into the narrative but this merely adds to the confusion. One can only conclude the director isn’t at all concerned about creating a coherent time frame. The ambiguous setting is a way of emphasising the story’s universality.
What Marcello has done superbly is capture the breathless energy of London’s writing. Even though the narrative has been changed in numerous ways it feels wonderfully true to the book. That’s partly down to the casting. Luca Marinelli, who won the award for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for his performance in the lead role, looks like he was born to play Martin Eden, a man of action who wants to be a writer.
Despite the adventurous careers of novelists such as Hemingway and Conrad, the stereotype of a writer is a dull character who rarely steps out of his or her room. It’s commonly believed there are those who live life and those who write about it. This is not the case with Martin Eden. Never have I seen a film that makes such a drama from the writer’s creative frenzy, the obsessive-compulsive need to reach an audience. The Greeks spoke about a man’s daimon – a guiding spirit – and Martin pursues the literary life as if possessed. As ideas start to blossom in Martin’s brain, London writes: “He was drunken with comprehension”.
The first version of Martin that we meet is an uneducated working-class lad from Naples who has been a sailor since his early teens. Devastatingly handsome, muscular and charismatic, Martin is a lady-killer and a street-fighter. Just back from a voyage he is on the spree. He picks up a girl named Margherita (Denise Sardisco), and upon arising from a night of crude passion, notices a scrawny young man being harrassed by a bully. A quick one-two and Martin has made a new friend – Arturo Orsini (Giustinano Alpi), who invites him home to meet the family.
The Orsinis are a revelation to Martin. It is the first time he has found himself among rich, cultivated members of the bourgeoisie and he is dazzled. He sucks it all up: the books, the paintings, the furniture, the table settings, the gracious manners and good grammar. Most impressive of all is Arturo’s sister, Elena (Jessica Cressy), a blonde, blue-eyed, Pre-Raphaelite beauty. Martin is awed by Elena’s aloof demeanour and her knowledge of literature. He feels this is what he’s always been waiting for, and vows to make himself worthy of the Orsini household.
And so begins Martin’s furious quest to educate himself out of the working classes. He improves his grammar and vocabulary, devouring works of literature, science and philosophy. He conceives the desire to write, and begins churning out stories and articles. As he serves what Elena calls his “apprenticeship” his efforts are constantly rejected and he sinks ever deeper into poverty. While this is happening he deepens his relationship with Elena, whose middle-class reserve is being undermined by Martin’s animal magnetism. Like everyone else around him she thinks his need to write is a quixotic indulgence, but he will not give up.
It’s not until Martin meets a jaded, tubercular old socialist named Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), that he finds someone who appreciates his work. ‘Briss’ takes Martin along to a political meeting where speakers expound their revolutionary doctrines. Martin is contemptuous of them, as his own political opinions have been formed by Herbert Spencer, the thinker who gave us the now-discredited doctrine of Social Darwinism. In both the film and the book, Martin’s fiery individualism sounds disturbingly like fascism. A little education can indeed be a dangerous thing.
A study in will-power and determination, Martin has an insane confidence in his own abilities, even when he is forced to take labouring work to pay his debts. We know that success will finally arrive but when it does he becomes cynical, disenchanted by the hypocrisy of those who sneered at his efforts but now put him on a pedestal. The movie doesn’t dwell on this turnaround to the same extent as the book, but the moral is the same: Martin’s work is just as poorly understood by his new admirers as by his previous detractors (who happen to be the same people).
It could be said that Martin descends into success after having pursued literature with a burning sense of idealism. His discovery of books did not arise as part of a longterm education but with explosive force. In his reading he glimpses a truth, a new reality he had never seen before. As a writer he pursues this truth relentlessly, although he can only describe it as “something big”. In London’s over-heated prose this occasionally leads to some peculiar phrasing, as when he writes: “He wanted her to feel with him this big thing that was his…”
It may sound comical but it’s the heady mix of sex, politics and high idealism that transforms this story of an aspiring writer into a parable. Martin Eden is a modern Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the subject’s spiritual quest is inseparable from class struggle and social inequity, and the pursuit of an impossible romance. The name “Eden” is hardly chosen at random as Martin finds his paradise in the world of letters only to have it snatched away as he enters the world. Elena is his Eve, who gives him a false impression of a middle-class that worships only material success not strivings after cosmic truth. As the blurred chronology of this movie attests, it’s a story that need not be confined to any one place or time.
Directed by Pietro Marcello
Written by Maurizio Braucci & Pietro Marcello, after a novel by Jack London
Starring Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Vincenzo Nemolato, Carlo Cecchi, Denise Sardisco, Carmen Pommella, Giustiniano Alpi
Italy/France/Germany, rated M, 129 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 19 June, 2021