by Ken Bakely
One of the most fascinating aspects of Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden, an adaptation of the 1909 Jack London novel, is to be cagey – or perhaps even better, intentionally nonsensical – about the film’s setting. In following the life of the titular aspiring polemic (Luca Marinelli), Marcello employs a swerving mixture of fashion styles and technologies to obfuscate the exact nature of the time period. It is the early, middle, and late twentieth centuries at once. There is a point to this, and it’s a particularly brilliant one. The film’s zig-zagging journey begins by introducing Martin’s origins of lonely obscurity, to the start of his quest to win the heart of Elena (Jessica Cressy), a woman from a wealthy background. In an effort to move into her socioeconomic class, he becomes a ferocious intellectual, devouring every book he can get his hands on, and eventually begins writing works of his own. Confusing, contradictory views, formed from little except desperation, turn into divisive speeches of incoherent politics. His aims are towards nowhere except infamy, in a mindset where the actual ramifications of philosophy and ideology are but abstract means to an end. Though he begins as an unquestionably working-class figure, he abhors socialism, because he wants to advance into a specific class and a specific level of achievement that only he can ascertain. And so, as the film depicts his Sisyphean quests, it only makes sense that the setting would be as scrambled as he is.
Why do I take so much time to mention this? It goes a long way to explaining the comprehensive approach that the movie takes as a whole. Martin Eden is a gorgeously, densely textured achievement. With extraordinary artistry and deft humor, it shows the way that its main character’s contradicting elements – of hope and resignation, idealism and craftiness, forthrightness and delusion – create the arresting, troubling persona that he eventually occupies. The film comes together in careful and methodical ways; at barely two hours, its detail and scope often give the illusion of a sprawling epic significantly longer, but it’s never boring or slow. Marcello finds detail in every moment and location. There’s always something more to see or reflect upon, and everything plays a part in constructing the movie’s overriding points and ideas. The arc of Martin’s career as a writer and public figure is both an examination of the character and a caustic commentary on the ideas that he picks up and obsesses over on the way there. London’s novel is held to be an ironic condemnation of the arrogant individualism that his character assumes. The message is hardly lost here, when Martin occupies a particularly harsh and unforgiving reading of how he comes to perceive the human experience, and his complete disdain for those he finds unfitting.
For his part, Marinelli is more than up to the mammoth task of bringing such an idiosyncratic and often unsympathetic role to life. Martin’s initially quiet, stoic resolve is interpreted just as fully and passionately as the character’s most outrageous outbursts in the latter parts of the film, when he yells his thoughts to others with alarming energy. Marinelli wisely considers both the human core of his character’s tortured soul and the sheer dramatic lightning that the part requires, and all are captured in his cutting gazes and tightly controlled line readings. He leads a roundly talented cast as they navigate Marcello’s vibrant world, framed through Alessandro Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo’s warm and rich cinematography. The movie is framed in deep, earthy tones, and on 16mm film, carries a distinctly aged and ensconced feel that emphasizes its nondescript period trappings.
All of this helps Martin Eden come together as the fiery, restless, and indelible film that it is. Marcello’s many bold stylistic strokes are always as well-considered as the foundational experimentations in the script, which he co-wrote with Maurizio Braucci. Even his most outsized decisions – including smattering rounds of varied archival footage (of people, vehicles, nature) that run in between sequences as if fleeting notes of potent seasoning – play a part in establishing a scope for the movie’s thematic and narrative reaches that always seem to go further than a first glance might imply. The director swiftly navigates the plethora of material before him: from the movie’s indistinct setting to its nearly-multimedia digressions into documentary footage, there’s a quietly madcap sensibility to the proceedings, but his direction isn’t abstract or chaotic for arbitrary reasons. Martin Eden is an electric, highly perceptive achievement, carried from its inspired direction to its clever writing, strong performances, and powerfully good use of its eccentric aesthetic choices. Everything is so meticulously engineered and presented, building to its portrait of a mercurial, unsettling character and the world he lives in and shapes.