It feels like some lost Italian masterpiece from the 1970s. unearthed from a locked vault after decades of gathering dust and slotted into the middle of a late De Sica/ mid-period Francesco Rosi triple feature. The score borrows bits of classical music, Sixties Euro-pop and Eighties Italo-disco — perfect for a period piece rife with both vintage signifiers and modern anachronisms. All the talk of socialism vs. staunch individualism could have come straight from a beer hall in 1920 or a presidential town hall in 2020. It’s a last-century tale whose preoccupations with ambition, fame, status, literature, the lifestyles of the rich, the politics of the poor, a pilgrim’s progress and his eventual disillusionment are universal and timeless.
Martin Eden, filmmaker Pietro Marcello’s adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 novel, is the sort of movie that restores your faith in an art form — or, at the very least, in the craft of turning a bygone era’s paragraphs on a page into an urgent, pomo mix of sound and vision. Words are, in fact, the weapon of choice for the title character, a working-class sailor who trades his predetermined position in life for something less hand-callousing and in his mind, more intellectually creative. “My force is fearsome as long as I have the power of my words to counter against the world,” says Martin (Luca Marinelli), repeating the opening lines of London’s semi-autobiographical book into a tape recorder; later, he’ll tell a buddy, “I note down new words. I turn them into my friends.” He will write his way out of his social standing, one sentence at a time. First, however, he’ll need wisdom, experience, education, a mentor, a patron. And, naturally, a source of inspiration.
That comes accidentally when, one early morning, Martin is awakened on his docked ship by the sound of a gentleman being rousted. The perpetrator is some security-guard brute patrolling the pier. The victim is Arturo Orsini (Giustiniano Alpi), concluding the previous evening’s bender. Martin socks the former in the jaw, and is rewarded by the latter with a visit to the Orsini estate. Arturo comes from a well-to-do-family, offering his protector a peek at the indiscreet charms of the upper crust. This glimpse fuels his class aspirations. A young woman, however, provides the inspiration: Elena (Jessica Cressy), Arturo’s sister. She introduces him to poetry and the pleasure of reading, which will in turn introduce him to a previously inaccessible landscape of ideas. Though their desire is mutual, Martin knows that being a laborer isn’t the key to winning her hand or entry into the household. He will initially become a writer in order to impress her. Soon, the profession reveals itself to be a calling.
“Knowledge is power” goes the maxim, but in Martin Eden, knowledge is also an addiction, and our hero is keen on keeping the monkey on his back extremely well-fed. So Martin devours books, soaks up the lives of others, watches everything carefully via Marinelli’s wide, blue eyes. Then he sweats over verbs and sends stories out to be published. He steadfastly refuses his brother-in-law’s offers for work (to be fair, the man is a boorish cretin) and later, for Orsini-aided opportunities to rise in the ranks of business. Martin is determined to make it on his own, a typewriter his only companion, and the film leans into its portrait-of-an-artist-as-a-young-martyr groove. He takes his knocks. A series of odd jobs and travels off the beaten path fills in the gaps of his lack of formal schooling, while a chance encounter with an elderly hedonistic poet named Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi, embodying decades’ worth of boho decadence) helps radicalize him.
It’s around this period that, after endless return-to-sender rejections, Martin finally gets a short story in a magazine. “They’re throwing the dog a bone,” his mentor warns him. More offers follow, as does a sense that both of his dream environments — the workers-of-the-world-unite collectives and the velvetine cocoon of the weary rich — are bankrupt. Cue a raw talent’s rise, which also doubles as his big-picture fall. Be very careful what you wish for.
London’s original creation, which the author shared more than a few things in common with, was a representation of an old-fashioned American bootstrap mentality, combined with an outdoorsman’s ruggedness. (Unlike Martin, London had academic bona fides: He went to the University of California, Berkeley, before dropping out to head into the Klondike during the gold rush.) The young Mr. Eden of Marcello’s movie is a far more complicated character, finding fault in both socialism and its critics while eventually taking his proto-Randian fixation on individualism to some harsh extremes. Still, he retains his sense of square-shouldered, he-man earthiness until the final act, which is as good a segue as any to talk about what Luca Marinelli brings to the role. Recently seen fighting and dying and fighting some more in the immortals-are-go! action movie The Old Guard, the actor has a ’30s matinee-idol profile, a ’50s screen-rebel charisma and a ’70s leading man intensity. You understand why everyone goes gaga over him, but more importantly, you get a very clear sense of Martin’s hunger — for Elena, for literary glory, for a place at the gilded table, for political causes and, ultimately, to be left alone. The phrase “a star-making role” should be retired, yet this 35-year-old performer reminds you why it was coined in the first place. You walk away thinking that no one else could have played Martin with such soulfulness or depth.
It’s the man behind the camera as much as the one in front of it, however, that gives Martin Eden such a bracing sense of vitality. Trained as a painter and cutting his teeth on documentaries, Pietro Marcello treats London’s story with respect but without a stifling, suffocating sense of reverence. Relocating the story from Northern California to Naples, Italy, is the least of his personal touches; he and his cinematographers Alessandro Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo also move their 16mm cameras around (the nostalgia-inducing grain on those images!) like they’re shooting actual events as they happen, weaving in and out of his characters. Tinted snippets of real-life sailors and everyday people occasionally bleed into emulsion-heavy scenes that feel lifted from cinema’s infancy. A few bits from the nation’s neo-realistic period get thrown in for good measure. And, as a bonus, you can add Eden to the rare group of great movies — The 400 Blows, La Dolce Vita, Barton Fink, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Planet of the Apes — that end, as great movies should, on a beach.
As with Marcello’s previous film Lost and Beautiful (2015), which blended commedia dell’arte archetypes into a vérité portrait of a Southern Italian shepherd, there’s an anything-goes vibe that doesn’t somehow detract from his story. (Should you want to check that film out, or dip into the Italian director’s past works, Film at Lincoln Center’s virtual retrospective is going on for a few more days.) This London adaptation feels like a leveling up. We watch a young man go from striving hopeful to a craven figure of note, a creative dynamo to a contemptuous shell of his former self. But we also watch two other artists finding their voices and hitting their strides, and the rush of that feels more sustaining than you could possibly imagine.