Martin Eden is a 2019 Italian-French film written and directed by Pietro Marcello and based on the 1909 novel written by Jack London. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation, except that instead of being set in XIX century California, the story takes place in Campania in the XX century. It seems incredible, but many characteristics of the plot make this change of setting possible such as the protagonist being a sailor and the lively political situation with unions and the growing strength of socialist ideas among workers.
The plot, extremely briefly, is the following: Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) is a sailor of humble origins who, for the love of the rich Elena Orsini (Jessica Cressy), decides to become a writer. After many personal sacrifices, he becomes a successful one but he doesn’t find happiness, and takes his own life.
While changing some details here and there, the film closely follows Jack London’s novel, so much so that in my opinion some parts of the movie are a bit clunky and the movie could have worked better by modifying the original story. For example, the unspecified time jump leading to Martin being rich and married to Margherita (Denise Sardisco) didn’t convince me, and consequently a scene like that of Elena’s return to declare her love to Martin seems almost meaningless.
I think that, had the film been more explicit on the political side of the story, the motivations of both the protagonist and his mentor Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi) could have been stronger. For example, when the latter urges Martin to speak during a socialist demonstration, the whole thing seems to come out of nowhere, there’s no previous build-up justifying that.
On the other hand, I appreciated a lot at least two scenes perfectly suited to the Italian context. The first one is the fifth grade exam in which the teachers don’t recognize Martin’s knowledge because it goes beyond being able to recite the names of the seven kings of Rome by heart. The second scene is the dinner in which Martin argues that the so-called liberal families in Italy are in fact anything but liberals since they use the laws to protect their monopolistic and oligopolistic positions of power. Just think of how the Agnellis and Benettons have built their economic empires…
Luca Marinelli is amazing as the protagonist, he carries the weight of the entire work on his shoulders from start to finish, always managing to be fully convincing. The choice of shooting everything on super 16 mm film is also excellent: the result is beautiful and the grainy images fit well with the many vintage clips used to temporally place the story and to suggest the themes of certain scenes (such as the shipwreck of the sailing ship that precedes the death of Brissenden).
However, I cannot help but notice that the temporal development of the plot is a sore point of the film for me: perhaps by choice of the author, the exact year in which things happen is never clear. It almost seems that Marcello wanted to deal with the entire XX century by setting some scenes after the World War II, some others during Fascism, and even some in a more modern period, despite the fact that Martin’s story seems to take place over the course of few years only. The result, more than inspired, seemed confusing to me.
Despite this, there are many things that prompt me to recommend watching this ambitious film that wastes no time in showing postcard images of Naples and instead focuses on a tough story populated by characters that are anything but two-dimensional. Perhaps, the sole Maria (Carmen Pommella) emerges as a 100% positive character, while all the others are multi-faceted and convey a good sense of disquiet which fits well the themes of the movie, which is in itself a result of Martin Eden. Ciao!