Set in early 20th century Italy and adapted from Jack London’s novel of the same title, Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden tells the story of a young uneducated sailor who dreams of becoming a writer.
Martin Eden does not exist. And, since he is the fictional hero of Jack London’s book, not only does Martin Eden clearly not exist, but neither does his love for a beautiful, well-educated girl belonging to a wealthy American family of the very first years of the 20th century. Therefore, it does not really matter that Martin is a humble, ignorant sailor who can barely scribble his name on paper, nor does it matter that he is willing to purify his unrefined soul in order to become a writer and marry his beloved one. Martin Eden is just a character in a novel, and people do not jump out of hardcover volumes.
What is, then, the reason behind Italian director Pietro Marcello’s latest screen adaption of London’s book? Marcello, whose most famous film is the critically acclaimed documentary The Mouth of the Wolf (2009), sets the story in Italy and puts together an all-Italian cast, thus implying a direct connection between the outcome of the story and the goings-on in contemporary Italian society. As a matter of fact, Martin Eden is more than a traditional Bildungsroman: not only must the young hero fight against himself so that he can be welcomed into the higher society; he also has to face the invisible forces that act upon the very system of social classes he is trying to climb – money, politics, and ideology.
And if we plunge ourselves into the images of the often hand-held, scantily moving camera, or if we concentrate on the shallow focus that nurtures every frame, we will actually get the impression to be watching a documentary, and a slightly boring one. Hopping on in a rhapsody of loosely seamed episodes, the characters stand frozen in their plotlines, trying to wit each other out with common-sensical, pathos-loaded remarks and sentences, thus composing a weary refrain to the outdated epics of a bon sauvage won to the civilized side of the moon. For sure this historical fresco, accurately shot on 16mm, is imbued with a poetical, even literary quality; still, its cinematography dangerously flirts with fetishism, thus failing to become a glorious, truly insightful “Everyman’s tale”.
This way, Martin Eden suffers under the burden of commonplace criticism and of the smart-tongued self-quotations that flow out of Martin’s mouth itself, and the whole film feels like a badly taught class in intellectual self-righteousness. Nothing is new under the sun, nor under the gaze of Marcello’s camera, who can but tell long-worn-out tales of cultural clashes and of the annihilation of the individual in the rising mass society. Nothing is new in the exploitation of colour saturation to mirror the vision of someone’s inner eye – did someone call out “Tarkovsky” in the back row? Nothing is new in the timeworn debate on the duty of the arts.
What remains unclear, therefore, is the reason why Marcello wanted to bring London’s raging anti-systemic novel back to life without rewriting it for AD 2019 – though the reason might lie within the main character himself. Martin is played by Luca Marinelli, a much-appreciated actor who graduated at the renowned Silvio D’Amico National Academy of Dramatic Art in Rome. The 34-year-old actor is tall and good on the eyes, and he surely knows how to take advantage of his piercing blue eyes. A perfect mix of naive Southern manners and bourgeois aesthetic canons, he really could have been the ultimate match for London’s Eden. Were it not for the stubborn fixation on this compounded flair, his performance could have earned him a Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival. Which, in fact, it did– though some malignant voice keeps hissing in our ears that Mr. Phoenix should have been awarded the prize. Too bad that Todd Phillips’ Joker was evidently more suited to our times than Marcello’s film.