His name is Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli), and he calls no nation home. He’s a sailor by trade—the kind mothers warn their daughters about: tall, dark, and handsome with a few roguish scars and a spectacular head of hair. He’s also bold and very likable, much to one mother’s chagrin. She’s the wealthy matriarch of Elena (Jessica Cressy), an ingénue with delicate features, pinned-back hair, and pale blue eyes. Elena’s lived her life in books at the piano. Now she’s ready to discover what all those beautiful compositions are about.
Before that can happen, Martin must be educated. Elena runs in a pretty posh circle, and if Martin is going to join the fray, the ruffian needs to be cast out and replaced with a man of refinement. But, as Friedrich Nietzsche once warned, “Be careful, lest in casting out your demon you exorcise the best thing in you.”
So, Martin starts to read. A lot. He loves literature and poetry, “the kingdom of knowledge,” as he calls it, and takes to letters like a fish to water. He reads voraciously, writes like he’s running out of time and loves the way only a commercial revolutionary can (which is to say, poorly).
Directed by Pietro Marcello—who co-wrote the screenplay with Maurizio Braucci—Martin Eden is adapted from Jack London’s 1909 novel about a proletariat writer rising in rank both as a political figure and a celebrity. Both are by accident, and Martin desires neither. The wealthy liberals want to demonize Martin as a socialist, but Martin shakes his head at the socialists: Their struggle is in opposition to the law of nature. But the liberals garner no love either as Martin sees nothing but pilfering hypocrites in them. If Kurt Vonnegut was a man without a country, Martin Eden is a man without a class.
He is also a man out of time. Martin Eden takes place entirely in Italy, but it’s hard to pin down when. The 20th century seems as good a guess as any. There’s a war coming, but which war? Does it matter? Much like an endless class struggle, there’s always another war coming down the pike. Much in the same way filmmaker Christian Petzold lifted a play from 1946 and transported it to modern-day Europe for his 2018 film, Transit, Marcello takes a 1909 novel and equally unmoors it to great effect. Not knowing adds to the enjoyment.
And Martin Eden is very enjoyable. It is, to borrow a phrase from writer David Bordwell, good old-fashioned art cinema. The writing is tight, the acting is solid, and the cinematography from Alessandro Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo is lush: rich colors, deep blacks, grainy texture from the Super 16mm.