Centering on one man’s artistry and quest to making a career out of writing, played with charisma, rawness, and endless intensity by Italian actor Luca Marinelli, “Martin Eden,” an Italian sprawling epic of creativity and hardship, love, aspiration and politics during many years of the 20th century is acclaimed Italian filmmaker Pietro Marcello’s first film to receive wide distribution to date, after years of making mostly documentaries with very limited distribution in his homeland.
It’s almost tempting to say that Marcello holds great promise and is a newly discovered filmmaker that I can’t wait to see what he does next in the cinematic area, for a new work that holds a singular visual style and vigorous pacing shows signs of an energized filmmaker that holds promise of being an accomplished filmmaker. This is a filmmaker that holds great visual grandeur, one that is easily influenced by the work of other Italian auteur masters like Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti. “Martin Eden” is easily one of the most resonant films of 2020, released last year on the festival circuit, and now making the waves in virtual screening rooms, “Martin Eden” is already making notable top ten lists of 2020.
Visually alluring and dramatically engaging with references to American literary and European cinematic history, “Martin Eden” is loosely based on Jack London’s 1909 acclaimed novel of the same title, but it also recalls the work of George Orwell and Ernest Hemmingway, in which both celebrated artists also wrote works about a struggling writer, specifically “A Moveable Feast” by Hemingway, which was published in 1964, and Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”, which also published in 1936, the time frame in which the film “Martin Eden” potentially ends.
In terms of films about struggling artists, “Martin Eden” will inevitably be compared to the Coen brothers masterpiece, the rich dramatic film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and to Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate,” which is about renowned painter Vincent Van Gogh, and while all three are epic tales that take us back to a certain era so vividly, all three of these films digs deep into the wounded psyche of the the artist, and each film does it so authentically and passionately. Each film is also about individual identity as well, as each artist stays true to their artform as they all reject compromise for commerce and bourgeoise intrusion. Though more sprawling by design, the film spans generations from early years of the 20th century; we see Bolshevism spreading, fears of a war impending, and the rise of fascism. The time period is quite unclear, probably for budget and monetary reasons. But it works to the story’s advantage as we get décor and technology from many periods that gives “Martin Eden” its own singularity that makes the material more universal in appeal.
It’s an adaptation of a renowned literary piece, Marcello digs deep into Italian’s and even the world’s recurrent problems, class hierarchy, greed, and selfishness within humanity at its nastiest form. However, the film also condemns collectivism and socialism as filmmaker Marcello stays true to the protagonist of London’s vision as being his own individual, who doesn’t align with any political conformity, who rejects greed and power while understanding that it’s the nature of tribal mentality leads to abuse in power. While holding disdain for greed and the wealthy elite, while also rejecting Communism and unionizing in the film, Martin Eden in many ways is an anarchist in his own ways. For Martin joining a union to reject cronyism is just leaving one authoritarian for another, Martin is a deep-thinker who certainly rejects tribalism.
However, as a study of a struggling artist, Eden (Marinelli) is a fascinating character, a tormented, struggling, empathetic writer, driven to getting published at the expense of even destroying his own livelihood and relationships. A chronicle of artistic aspiration, persistence, and anguish centering on pursuing one’s talent at any expense. The film also holds a socio-economic context as the story unfolds that gives it a more dense layer rather than just being a film about a struggling writer. Also, it’s quite fascinating how the film is quite vague in its allusions to historical and political events, there is no explicit references to navigate what year we are in, except we see events unfold like black shirts burning books, along with some leftist Marxist and right-wing fascist vigor that gives us an understanding of the events as they unfold, the crucial pre WWII era, in which most of the yarn takes place.
The film never loses dramatic momentum and is always narratively gripping, pulling you in with empathy as it’s always emotionally engaging. The film also holds some very rich visual aesthetics, a stunning use of 16mm experimental footage used for vistas and flashbacks of his youth, “Martin Eden” should be commended and praised for its visual richness, ambitions and scope. There is something anachronistic about the film that makes it quite unique on a visual level. It also serves with the films narrative and themes, as the ideas of the past resonate with the struggles the world endure today, giving the film an effective reflection of our own consciousness through insights of our past told through the eyes of Martin Eden.
The film is amply textured as it chronicles Martin’s complex journey that consists of labor, falling in love, and traveling Italy through it’s shores. With his experimental aesthetics, Marcello is an award-winning documentarian and he holds a playful aesthetic energy here, as we see images that are at times grainy, archival footage, reenactment black and white footage of his childhood, 16mm footage of vistas and locales, and well as other archival footage of Italian history. On many levels it echoes the work of Oliver Stone’s work, as Marcello also merges nonfiction and fiction into Martin’s world as we see a man live through poverty, desperation, and for once some accomplishment and success.
Although composed of different periods of his life, the yarn explores the life and times of one writer, Martin Eden, who transforms himself from a down-and-out and uneducated poor man, on his own into a published writer. We are easily invested in Martin, he is a man without a real home. He holds a passion for reading, is scolded and mocked by his family and even aristocrats for his passion. Yet he somehow keeps staying driven and doesn’t compromise for anyone, and doesn’t want to toil with endless labor. Martin also realizes not many take him seriously, and not many believe in him. Even the woman he falls madly in love with, Elena (Jessica Cressy) mocks him around her upper-class environment, but is secretly attractive to him. At home, Martin is scolded by his brother-in-law for reading and wanting to improve himself. Martin can’t seem to really please anybody for who he truly is, and it’s reasonable why Martin ends up advocating for the power of the individual. Even people who realize his potential only do it for their own personal gains.
Structurally the film is always captivating. The first half half of the film focuses on Martin’s relationship with Elena, who has to hold him from a distance, in which Elena’s family isn’t too keen on him due to his class status. She also scolds him for not being cultured, and suggests if he wants to become an improved writer that he is going to have to earn a better education. Which leads to him applying for a university in which is application is rejected after the women survey him and aren’t impressed with his knowledge. Martin eventually becomes more well-versed and learns from great authors and books. Elena also learns from Martin after she gets critical of his work for being too “cynical” and “not hopeful”; which leads Martin taking her to his impoverished town to persuade her that her life of privilege and vision of hope is very narrow. Eventually Martin becomes a published author, and his artistic aspirations only foster into greater opportunities. Contrary to others who once dismissed him, he became the person everyone was wrong about. However, as Martin rises and notices how more people become drawn into his success, he sees right through their own self-interests. This is something Martin even cautioned about as he warned about the flaws of both capitalism and socialism and how they both heed to self-interests.
Because of this, Martin becomes further and further more isolated and even alienated from others. As such, Martin Eden will live a life of solitude, something tragically many great artists do. Artists suffer because they pour themselves into their art, only for it to be exploited for commerce, for their success to be exploited, and for the world to only regress as they attempt to change the world through their frameworks. It’s rather a cynical viewpoint, but there is something pure and reassuring as we are now living in an era where more and more people are rejecting the status-quo and want reforms in our political and socio-economic systems across the globe. In many ways “Martin Eden” reminded me of P.T. Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” and even Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” which are about troubled men who rose to their aspirations, only to drift off to isolation after their triumphs ended with more personal adversity.
Essential to the film’s varied artistry is the use of music, the film grain and a formally daring style that elevates the material in many ways. All around “Martin Enen” one of the most remarkable films of the year, filmmaker Pietro Marcello and co-writer Maurizio Braucci have not only built a refreshing adaptation from Jack London’s classic novel, but they provide a miraculous curiosity to “Martin Eden,” and a final frame and film that holds lasting power.