“The world is stronger than me. Against its power I have nothing but myself, which, in any case, is quite something.” Spoken by the title character, these lines open Italian director Pietro Marcello’s agonizingly beautiful Martin Eden, loosely adapted from Jack London’s autobiographical 1909 bildungsroman. That dubious sense of defiance — with its undercurrent of inevitable defeat — powers the film’s working-class protagonist (played by the mesmerizing Luca Marinelli, most recently seen as a member of The Old Guard), fusing his literary ambitions with an almost pathological individualism. London had intended the novel as a kind of self-critique but perhaps made his hero too charismatic; though a flop upon initial publication, it eventually became one of the author’s most-read books, seized upon by aspiring artists and dreamers around the world. Transposing the story to Italy and giving London’s all-American tale a more continental twist, Marcello (and Marinelli) keep the charisma but make sure to bring the character’s growingly monstrous delusions to the fore: Their Martin Eden is a tribune for the poor who becomes a proto-fascist — in part because he recognizes that the world as he understands it cannot be changed.
When we first meet him, Martin is an erstwhile laborer with little education and plenty of charm. One night, he saves a young man from being beaten up, and is invited to the boy’s family’s estate, where Martin meets his lovely sister, Elena (Jessica Cressy). Martin marvels at the paintings and books that adorn the walls, and attempts (poorly) to keep up with Elena’s erudition; we see the shame in his eyes when she swats away his few lousy words of French. He doesn’t wilt, however, or retreat. Instead, Martin vows to read as much as he can. His love for Elena inspires a love of learning and self-improvement — an “incessant march through the kingdom of knowledge,” as he puts it in a letter — but not for comfort or domesticity. He rejects opportunities for a middle-class life, his sights set on something greater.
Living in poverty and desperately typing away at his stories (at one point literally collapsing from hunger and exhaustion), Martin sends his work to publishers everywhere and gets rejected by nearly all of them. When he finally sells a piece, and is able to buy the family he lives with some groceries, his triumph is deeply moving. Keenly aware of the plight of the impoverished but also taken with the controversial social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, Martin longs to escape his world, not uplift it. (“If you have a key, any prison can be a home,” he says at one point, seemingly oblivious to the fact that for everyone else, it’d still be a prison.) The idea sets him against both the flag-waving socialists in the streets and the bourgeois liberals in their drawing rooms. Speaking up at a left-wing protest, Martin asserts the right of the individual against collective action. To him, joining a union simply means giving up one boss for another, but it eventually becomes clear that he believes only a few special people can be considered individuals. From such by-the-bootstraps libertarianism, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to out-and-out fascism.
Despite the historical overtones, Martin Eden takes place in a kind of timeless past. At points, the setting seems to be the early years of the 20th century; there is talk of an approaching war, and the Blackshirts make a brief, late appearance. Yet we also see casual wear, architecture from the 1970s, cars from the 1980s, small color TVs, and movie theaters showing blurry, soft-focus romances. (The filmmakers probably didn’t have the budget for a fully loaded period piece, so they’ve used this shortcoming to their advantage.) Fenced inside her dusty, elegant world of privilege, Elena could just as easily be a Visconti heroine from the 19th century. Martin, for his part, looks like he could have stepped in from the 1960s, but that might also be because Marinelli has the kind of screen presence some might describe as “swole Jean-Pierre Léaud.” Such anachronistic touches never stick out, however, or draw attention to themselves. The idea is not so much to use the past to speak to the present but to portray a universal, perhaps eternal phenomenon: the collision between individual ambition and class consciousness.
Marcello avoids didacticism, instead using the textures of the film to evoke Martin’s ideological journey. The director, who comes from the documentary world and still maintains much of that spirit, cuts regularly to grainy, archival footage (sometimes in black and white) of streets, ships, trains, protests, buildings, children, some of it from his own films. The cuts are never seamless — we can almost always tell when Marcello has inserted some nonfiction into the movie — and the collagelike images become an epic invocation of the wide universe that gives Martin’s writing its life, that animates both his desire to create and his desire to overcome his surroundings. We see a gaunt man at a grade school chalkboard, learning to write his name and smiling through a mouthful of rotted teeth, which conveys both the humiliation of poverty and ignorance but also, simultaneously, the joy of accomplishment. We see a young, one-legged boy lying at night inside a decrepit shack, mournfully regarding the hole in the roof under which he must sleep; then we see his face light up at the sight of a faraway fireworks display, a celestial dream.
There is a childlike purity in Martin’s initial yearning to rise above his means, but Marcello shows how that desire is corrupted by the paradox of genius and the drive required for success. The director gradually isolates Martin in the frame, the physicality and earthiness of the film’s early scenes giving way to alienation, desolation, ossification. The documentary cutaways take on a past-tense quality, now less a portrait of the universe from which Martin emerged and about which he writes and more a distant memory. What was once a righteous passion transforms into wide-eyed rage and bitterness. (Martin Eden would make an interesting double feature with Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere, which shows how Benito Mussolini went from socialist firebrand to fascist megalomaniac.)
A storyteller and self-mythologizer (as with Jack London, there’s clearly an autobiographical kick to many of Martin’s tales), our hero essentially buys into his own bullshit. Movies, too, are often narratives of individual glory, and by making Martin’s journey so cinematically compelling, Marcello slowly traps us in the character’s increasingly repellent beliefs. It’s not unlike what Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader do in Taxi Driver, letting us see ourselves in Travis Bickle early on, so that his slide into psychopathic violence scars us emotionally as well. That mixture of identification and revulsion, when it works this magnificently, can be transcendent — making us feel as if the filmmaker has not just told a good story, but unlocked something essential about our reality. These are the kinds of movies we talk about for years.
Provided we see them, of course. Martin Eden is being released both in theaters (in places where they’re open) and through Kino-Lorber’s Kino Marquee “virtual cinema” platform, which allows shuttered movie houses around the country a share of the on-demand proceeds. It’s worth the tiny bit of hassle: You go to the Kino-Lorber website, select a theater through which to “see” the movie (you can select one from anywhere in the country, and the theater you pick gets to split your money with the distributor), and afterward watch it via the KinoNow app, where a title you’ve purchased shows up in your “library.” The film is a masterpiece, so you should see it any way you can. But it’s also nice to know that even by viewing it at home you can help out a struggling, indispensable industry.
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