Pietro Marcello’s sweeping historical Italian epic “Martin Eden” is a whole lot of movie. It possesses a weight and heft, both cinematically and philosophically, that make it a rare treat. And at the center of the film is a whole lot of movie star: Luca Marinelli’s performance in the title role is an outstanding star turn for the Italian actor (U.S. audiences may recognize him from his supporting role in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Old Guard”).
Marinelli has a face that could, and should, be carved in marble. His Roman nose is practically a supporting character, and his face is photographed beautifully, as is the entire film, shot in an achingly gorgeous rich and grainy 16 mm that captures shadows and texture you can practically chew on, a sensuous luxury in this digital age.
Marcello adapted the script for “Martin Eden” with co-writer Maurizio Braucci from Jack London’s 1909 novel of the same title, which takes place in early 20th century Northern California. Braucci and Marcello transplant the tale to midcentury Italy, near Naples. It’s never quite clear what the time frame is, it could be the 1930s or the 1950s, but it doesn’t matter because the tale is timeless.
At the outset, Martin Eden is a lusty young sailor without much more on his mind than his wages and pretty girls. One morning, he comes to the aid of a young man being kicked off the wharf, and in thanks, the young man, Arturo (Giustiniano Alpi), invites him to his family’s splendid home. Martin’s not sure they’ll accept him, in his shabby clothes, but Arturo assures him, “they’re open-minded.” When Martin steps through the garden walls, his life changes forever.
He meets Arturo’s sister, Elena (Jessica Cressy), and falls hard, instantly. Like any infatuated young man, he wants to impress her, faking French and knowledge of Baudelaire. She lends him books and he inhales them. Elena presses on him the importance of a traditional education, but Martin, a grown man with bills to pay, sets about teaching himself to become a writer.
Against this backdrop of a class-based impossible love story, civil unrest brews as workers strike, preaching the values of socialism and collectivism. Meanwhile, Martin devours the social Darwinist writings of Herbert Spencer. Evolution becomes almost a personal mantra, because Martin himself is evolving, or so he thinks. He at once wants to discard his working-class trappings, but he also yearns to write about his own struggle and where he comes from. He dedicates himself to his craft because he loves Elena and wants to be with her, but also because he believes in himself and his own success as a writer, even if no one else does, his stories deemed “raw” and “too sad.”
Pushed to join the socialist movement, especially by his mentor, Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), Martin, a deep believer in individualism, violently revolts. Yet the plight of the working poor is his milieu, and he’ll happily poke holes in liberal hypocrisy. If “Martin Eden” is politically ambivalent, well, it’s because Martin Eden himself is politically ambivalent.
What’s certain is “Martin Eden” is a love letter to a century of Italian cinema. Martin is the epitome of a rugged neorealistic hero, Elena a dead ringer for Dominique Sanda in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 masterpiece “The Conformist.” Marcello sprinkles archival footage throughout the film, replacing what would be traditional establishing shots of street scenes and local characters with documentary footage. Some of the snippets become thematic motifs: a tall ship sinking in the sea, a pair of teens dancing in the streets. A sly electro score threaded among the Italian pop tunes and classical music lends to this sense of anarchic anachronism: It’s any times and all times.
The film’s final act is a reach, inviting the audience to stretch along with the storytelling, in order to fully encapsulate every aspect of Martin’s tale, which is in many ways a tragedy. In every way a reflection of its protagonist, “Martin Eden” strives for greatness, and in that striving, achieves it.
Cast: Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Carlo Cecchi, Vincenzo Nemolato, Denise Sardisco, Carmen Pommella.
Directed by Pietro Marcello.
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes.
No MPAA rating.
In Italian with English subtitles.
In theaters and virtual cinemas Friday
©2020 Tribune Content Agency, LLC
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.