“Martin Eden” opens with archival footage of a May 1, 1920 workers’ day celebration in an Italian city and closes with an old man walking along the Southern Italian seashore, bringing news that war has been declared. For those familiar with Jack London’s semi-autobiographical novel of a sailor turned writer, from which this 2019 film is adapted, these scenes may be jolting. Director and writer Pietro Marcello and his co-writer Maurizio Braucci have shifted the location from California (in London’s 1909 novel) to southern Italy (Naples) and the waters of the Mediterranean. They’ve moved the time frame as well, from London’s turn-of-the-last-century setting to 1920-1940, coinciding with the Ventennio, the 20 years of Fascist rule. (Mussolini’s March on Rome was in October 1922, and Italy declared war on Britain and France in June 1940.)
Although the backdrop is the Fascist era, it’s not obvious. The film’s focus is first on the struggle of a charming, charismatic, and handsome sailor (Luca Marinelli), poor in education, class and family, to rise above his station. Eden is invited into the home of the wealthy Orsini (a famous Italian aristocratic family for centuries), after saving their weak son from a beating on the docks. Inside their palatial villa, he’s introduced to a world he didn’t know existed, and to the beautiful, highly educated Orsini daughter, who becomes his love object and muse. “I want to talk like you, think like you,” he tells the talented but naïve and socially conforming Elena (Jessica Cressy). (The film retains Martin Eden’s American name.)
Eden’s effort to educate himself and become a writer is a typical rags-to-riches story, sensitively retold here, with a hint of Eliza Doolittle’s journey thrown in. The film has its overly melodramatic scenes, as when an ill Eden (who has overworked himself doing manual labor to earn a few lire) is tended to by an adopted family consisting of a mother, aptly named Maria (Carmen Pommella) and her two children. As they mop his fevered brow, he learns he has sold his first story. But for the most part, the narrative is compelling, and Marinelli is magnetic and believable in the out-sized role on which the film depends.
The basic success story occupies only the first hour, because with success come complications. Eden is introduced to political theory by his own reading of the British sociologist Herbert Spencer, who argued for social Darwinism in his 1886 magnum opus (one can imagine London reading it). At the same time, he’s introduced to socialism by an aristocratic friend he’s met at the Orsini’s, Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi, the one well-known Italian actor in the cast, who played the title role in the exceptional “Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician” ). “Briss” takes Eden to meetings of striking laborers and to the clandestine locations where socialist tracts are written and distributed. Eden wrestles (perhaps more than did London) with the contradiction between his attraction to bourgeois individualism—a stance consistent with his desire to be a writer, the most individual of pursuits—and his appreciation of socialism and working-class community.
For Eden, more disturbing than conflicting political theories is the loss of self caused by sudden fame (perhaps more London here). He is unable to reconcile the life of a wealthy celebrity, which he has become, with his roots in the working class. “There is no Martin Eden,” he tells an audience gathered to hear him speak and read, “you’ve invented me.”
The themes of “Martin Eden” play well in 2020: disparity in income equality, a new “Gilded Age,” fame’s ravaging of one’s identity (even more so today with social media), the desire for individualism (more appropriate to the U.S.), the need for social change (more European), the difficulty of melding one’s roots with a new social status. At the same time that Eden desires Elena, he comes to see that her love for him is dependent on his success as a writer and his taking on the manners and conduct of the elite. While Elena is Martin’s muse, she also wants to shape him for the world she knows.
“Martin Eden” is standard film-making—a familiar tale, told chronologically—with some significant departures from the norm, including the extraordinary change in setting. It was filmed in Super 16 mm, with many abrupt cuts and some brief, mostly historical scenes, something less than flashbacks. Several shots of a sinking mid-19th-century Clipper ship, outside the timeframe of the story, function (arguably too obviously) as a metaphor for Eden’s lost identity as a sailor. A brief flashback features a color home movie, apparently of Eden and his sister dancing as children—an impossibility, given that there were no home movie cameras, and no color film, in the 1920s. Another scene has Elena, leaving Eden in 1940 or so, getting into a 1960s Volvo. It’s unlikely that these are simply errors in continuity. Perhaps Marcello is offering a glimpse into Eden’s mind (he would think in color of dancing with his sister). Or he’s inviting the viewer to project class inequality and other themes into the decades beyond 1940. While these time-bending mini-scenes can be disconcerting, as a whole the film holds together while refusing to be fixed in any time period. Similarly, Marcello’s pursuit of a story with universal meaning requires that the historical setting of the film—the Mussolini years—be effaced.
Early on, Eden defines himself to Elena as “audacious.” The same could be said for Marcello, whose audacity has produced a film both traditional and unusual, one that earned the Golden Lion (Best Film) at the 2019 Venice Film Festival and four major awards, including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Producer, at the 2020 David di Donatello, the Italian Oscars. London’s character has also been memorialized in Tom Waits’s 1974 musical ode to sailors, “Shiver Me Timbers”: “And I know Martin Eden’s/Gonna be proud of me/And many before me/Who’ve been called by the sea.”
Date: 2019 (USA release 2020)
Stars: 3.5 (out of 4 stars)
Director: Pietro Marcello
Starring: Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Carlo Cecchi, Carmen Pommella
Country: Italy, France, Germany
Languages: Italian, Neapolitan, French; subtitled in English
Other Awards: Golden Lion (Best Film), Venice Film Festival 2019; Best Film, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Producer, David di Donatello 2020; one other win, more than 25 nominations as of this date.
Runtime: 129 minutes
Availability: Streaming through your local theater via Kino Marquee, here; for future availability, see JustWatch here.