Quite like the scorpion that stings the frog that’s offered to transport it to the other side of the river, simply because it’s in its perverse nature to do so, so does Martin Eden offer up an ultimately caustic view of human endeavor that gives the heave-ho to constant striving and the best intentions.
This vividly rendered Italian take on Jack London’s 1909 novel brandishes a cutting intelligence and a powerful star turn by Luca Marinelli, whose performance earned him best actor kudos at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and who launched his American career earlier this year with The Old Guard.
Pietro Marcello’s second feature film is shot through with vibrant imagination and a lively intelligence, but the way the story turns on itself and, ultimately, on the viewer as well, is disconcerting to the point of betrayal.
London was an agitating political socialist and didn’t hesitate to put his views on public display in his novels and journalism. The title character at this story’s core is a striver, a lower-class dock-worker (Oakland in the novel, the more colorful Naples in the film) who is inspired by the admiration of a beautiful upper-class young lady, Elena (Jessica Cressy) to better himself in order to be worth of her and win her heart.
“So the world is stronger than me,” Martin admits at the outset, but it can’t be by much. Tall, rangy and muscular, Martin attracts Elena and her family by taking out a belligerent jerk, and further wins them over with his well-spoken sincerity and declaration to pursue self-improvement. By virtue of his domineering physicality combined with a soft-spoken intelligence and a fundamental belief he inspires in people, Marinelli strongly brings to mind the young Burt Lancaster; up to now, he’s been able to dominate with his fists, but in future he wants to prevail with his mind.
Back in the grungy slums with his sister and her family, Martin becomes a sincere autodidact, reading voraciously with the intention of qualifying as a writer himself within two years. If the setting were today and you looked like Martin, everyone would tell him to shove the writing and become a male model or actor. But, no, this Martin is a sincere fellow, and you can tell because in his spare time he reads Herbert Spencer, promulgator of “the survival of the fittest.”
Marcello’s film is both disorienting and intriguing in that it never lets you know precisely when it’s taking place. The director makes arresting use of cascading montages of archival historical footage to summon memories of 20th century upheavals, conflicts, and otherwise notable events; cars are of distinctly different vintages, as are clothing and hair styles and other tell-tale era markers. Eventually, you come to the conclusion that Marcello is being imprecise on purpose as to when events are happening, the better to create a mash of related but deliberately disorienting images that eventually disconnect the narrative from orderly expectations.
Intriguing as this gambit may be, it nonetheless makes it difficult to gauge how much time has passed, which in turn creates wonder at how long the lovely Elena is going to wait around for her would-be suitor to finally sell a story; his hosts are curious on the same point. Bumpy storytelling dominates the film’s first half, at which point you think the young fellow ought to just give up and get a job selling Fiats.
But no sooner can you say L’oss bus a la milanesa than the former dock worker not only sells a story but soon becomes, via withered old socialist literary lion Russ Bissemden (the arresting Italian theater luminary Carlo Cecchi), a literary light himself. Even though it’s a bit hard to be convinced at Martin’s sudden emergence as a card-carrying intellectual, with him the film enters the realm of bickering leftist intellectuals, propagandists and radicals, everyone armed with torrents of quotations and political certainties. “Socialism is inevitable!” is the order of every day in this circle.
In the wake of his literary breakthrough, the film presents Martin as the latest member of a politically and literarily trendy world. When he takes the stage at a red rally, his words incense the throng, but his influence and celebrity merely increase. His world becomes a political and intellectual roller-coaster ride on a path toward intolerable pretentiousness and dissolution; the former sweet guy has become a blow-hard, and his idol a suicide. He’s lived life so intensely that he’s now burned out, to the point where he says, “Life disgusts me.”
What the film leaves the viewer with in the end could provide a bunch of politically rabid intellectuals a full night’s worth of argument. Emotionally, it leaves one empty at best and betrayed at worst; striving brings everyone in this story to naught, every philosophy of life seems null and void, all aspirations and dreams pointless. No wonder the title character in London’s novel commits suicide in the end.
In fact, there is much to recommend in the film, but the way dedication to the arts or politics are ultimately positioned here–as endeavors that mean both everything and nothing–is more than a bit irritating, even maddening. Like a vast Italian repast, Martin Eden serves up a load of deep dish delights, but the final couple of courses are overcooked to the point where you’re tempted to spit them out.
Kino Lorber launched the film in the U.S. this weekend in theaters and virtual cinemas.