This audacious piece of cinema from director Pietro Marcello, was freely based on the novel from Jack London, which has been adapted twice before. The film caused a sensation during the autumn festivals of 2019, especially its premiere at Venice, and is only now coming out in the UK after a US release late last year.
The film’s setting is deliberately vague: “it’s sometime in the 20th century”. It does open with a song by Daniele Pace, who was some sort of the Italian equivalent of Serge Gainsbourg. This places the story as occurring roughly sometime in the ’60s or ’70s. The titular Martin Eden is a handsome young man of the proletariat, played with serious movie star charisma by Luca Marinelli. Martin dreams of being a writer while making his living in the merchant navy. Life changes for Martin after he rescues Arturo (Giustiniano Alpi) from getting beaten up at the dock. Arturo brings him home to meet his wealthy family, and Martin soon becomes smitten with Arturo’s sister Elena (Jessica Cressy).
Martin gradually educates himself, both to please himself but also in order to become accepted into the increasingly bourgeois world he is both attracted and repulsed by. Martin starts out as this idealistic socialist writing adventures about the working man, but the more he achieves success and is accepted, the more he feels like a complete fraud. Elena demands that he stay true to the class struggle, but during his existential crisis he becomes increasingly interested in the work of Herbert Spencer, one of the original fathers of right-wing libertarianism. Much like Martin, Spencer was more left-libertarian in his earlier years before he split off into an anarcho-capitalist or right-libertarian school of thought. It’s no doubt that the similarities between Martin and Spencer’s move from left to right were a deliberate juxtaposition by Jack London.
It’s an epic fall from grace for this sad individual who is just incapable of happiness, a man who loses his soul in the process of trying to gain approval and success. It’s a story that has been told before in some of the greatest films ever made: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) and There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2008) are very obvious examples of this age old tale. There are also elements of Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably (1977), which is also about a lost soul who drifts in and out of ideologies, religions and psychoanalysis before rejecting them all.
The film was shot on dreamy Super 16mm by cinematographers Francesco Di Giacomo and Alessandro Abate, which creates the feeling that you are witnessing some lost classic of the ’70s. It’s a film that demands attention from the audience, and demands to be seen on the big screen. Luca Marinelli gives a star-making performance that turns what could’ve been a slow, didactic film about the conflict between socialism and a right-wing form of individualism into a very exciting cinematic experience. Oscar Wilde, as usual, said it best: “Art is individualism, and individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. There lies its immense value. For what it seeks is to disturb monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.”
Martin Eden is in cinemas across the nation on Friday, July 9th. On Curzon Home Cinema on Friday, August 13th.