REVIEW: Martin Eden [2019]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG | Runtime: 129 minutes
    Release Date: September 4th, 2019 (Italy) / October 16th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: 01 Distribution / Kino Lorber
    Director(s): Pietro Marcello
    Writer(s): Maurizio Braucci & Pietro Marcello / Jack London (novel)

Beauty is demanding.

Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) is a man without a home. He’s too ambitious to become a working class cog with little to no room for education and he’s too much of a rugged realist to play the aristocratic elite’s hypocritical games. So the former calls him lazy. The latter calls him undeserving. And yet he somehow finds himself with a foot firmly planted in both worlds regardless thanks to a charming likeability that turns him into the puppy by their side that he later rails against via fiery prose. The proletariat keeps him around to kick. The wealthy let him hang on as a circus act. And eventually his refusal to compromise to either unwittingly transforms him into the possession they’d each do anything to steal for themselves.

Loosely based on the Jack London novel, director Pietro Marcello and co-writer Maurizio Braucci‘s Martin Eden shows us how being that which both sides of the economic divide want isn’t enough if you aren’t also willing to thank those in power (who ultimately prove identical when stripped of their hollow and performative rhetoric) for allowing you the opportunity. He’s hard working to a fault and yet his pursuit of a career in writing labels him a dreamer. Those who laud the notion of making something of oneself from nothing (as evidenced by an up-and-coming accountant “gifted” the chance to ascend by the Orsini family) only approve when they are in control of the path that provides it in accordance to their rules. There’s always a price to pay.

Eden recognizes this early. He sees the patronizing ways in which the woman he loves (Jessica Cressy‘s Elena Orsini) involuntarily seeks to mold him to her environment even though his incongruity attracted him to her in the first place. He sees the same superiority complexes from his neighbors too with his brother-in-law proving the worst offender thanks to his anger towards Martin for daring to think bigger than his so-called charity. The people who truly see him as a man with great potential can be counted on one hand: men and women who’ve witnessed society’s crushing nature before choosing to sit out the fight like Maria Silvia (Carmen Pommella) and Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi). They hope to preserve his idealism while the rest hope to profit from it.

The first two-thirds of the runtime is thus a romance focusing more upon Martin’s love affair with the art of writing than with Elena. He continues work as a sailor and spends time doing manual labor in a foundry and on a farm to make ends meet while sending off his essays to magazines only for them to send them right back. The Orsini family inspires him to learn even if it means buying cheap books from a local second-hand merchant so that their authors can become his tuition-free professors. Maria (his friend and kind landlord) and Briss (a socialist introducing him to those the family he aspires to join battles) become his champions when things look dire and his benefactors (either literally or figuratively) when fortunes arrive.

And then comes the “disappointment” as Briss coins to commence the final third’s fast-forward. Suddenly the man no one wanted unless he conformed becomes the hero they all wish to carve up for themselves. It’s his words in action. Martin warned that capitalism and socialism both adhere to a natural law of masters and slaves. One may do so more overtly than the other, but the latter inevitably finds the strong rising to the top to oversee the weak and ensure that any strike does little besides provide a new boss. Martin is the boss both want. He’s the forward thinker the elite was wrong about and the man of the people the proletariat denied. But he wants none of it. He sees through their exploitation.

Why? Because his work never changed. His value did. Martin’s identity remained intact, but it’s utility shifted as he found fame removed from their stewardship. Everyone who denigrated him now greets him in the streets and he can’t help but see the strings before rejecting them instead. That doesn’t mean he’s above critique, however. His individualism may be commendable, but he’s still a John Galt-esque figure whose pompous self-aggrandizement prevents him from being truly beyond reproach. Martin gives away his money and continues to rebuff compromising his beliefs, but he does so in a way that positions himself as a victim. In the end it didn’t matter whether or not he was good or talented because the one’s confirming as much only do so when beneficial to them.

As such, Martin Eden will always be alone. Those worthy of him will take his charity, but the world will not change as a result. It’s a rather nihilistic outlook and yet there’s something inspiring in it because it reveals the fallacy that too many use to deny the reality of how broken our civilization has become. There’s a bit of Citizen Kane involved too as the stories Martin writes with the unfiltered suffering of where he came from become a sort of point of nostalgia. He was innocent then and thus unaware of the imbalance of which he’d soon become intimately involved. Back then he and his sister simply danced in the streets—the richness of their joy enough to sustain them. But it can’t be sustained.

Marcello directs the whole with an almost otherworldly fairy tale aesthetic with rounded corners, film reel grain, movie star close-ups, and rousing soundtrack cultivating time and place. Cressy and Cecchi are great in supporting roles from antagonistic aisles tugging Martin left and right until he finds his own voice in-between. And Marinelli fantastically carries the weight of the work’s drama and politics upon his shoulders. His Martin asks for more to be added at the beginning before buckling under the pressure of becoming what the media and readers label him despite his own vocal opposition. The love he gives is never enough for those receiving it and the love he craves is never given without conditions. The sole entity he can always rely on completely is the sea.

[1] Luca Marinelli in a scene from Martin Eden, photo by Francesca Errichiello, courtesy Kino Lorber
[2] Luca Marinelli and Jessica Cressy in a scene from Martin Eden, photo by Francesca Errichiello, courtesy Kino Lorber
[3] Luca Marinelli and Jessica Cressy in a scene from Martin Eden, photo by Francesca Errichiello, courtesy Kino Lorber

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