Martin Eden, the character, is a sailor who wants to be a writer in Italy. Martin Eden, the film, is a meeting between Pietro Marcello, a filmmaker with one foot in the experimental and non-fiction scenes and Jack London, the famous adventure writer from the 20th century early decades – writing here a semiautobiographical in which London and Eden histories have many things in common. It is a large bildusroman, but one might ask what is being formed. It is a sentimental education that is part bourgeois, part Marxist. It is in the particularities of this meeting that Marcello’s attention to documentary detail and the dramatic arc of London’s epic are tensioned.
There’s two useful questions when dealing with Martin Eden. The first one is about place. What does it mean to move London’s alienation of consciousness from the new world to Italian working class? What are those historical tensions now that Eden is flirting with European aristocracy? It is a movie about the impossibility of the artistic gesture in this constant divorce between a conscious about the world and the artist’s individualism. It is about all the weight of its formation and the aristocratic patronage of the arts. Time passes, but Marcello knows well that he also is, deep down, as much a victim of those circumstances as Eden. The great European film festivals are just a new way for those same processes to be put in action. Something to praise Martin Eden: there are moments when dealing with the tensions between Eden and the aristocratic Family that gives him support (he saves the son’s life and romances the daughter) in which it is easy to think about Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh – and given that there’s no better movie on the subject, that’s no small praise.
The second adaptation question regards time. Martin Eden’s drama logic suggests it takes place between the late 1920s and the early 1930s, the moment of fascism’s rise in Italy and the expansion of Marxism among its working class (London’s novel is actually from 1909). Only Marcello opts for a bolder and more open option with a diffuse time. It is not a matter, like Christian Petzold’s Transit, of transposing the novel a century ahead and trying to imagine those same dramatic relationships in present time, but to imagine a world in which the entire Italian 20th century seems to exist at same time. In Martin Eden’s imagination there’s space for decades of contradictions and violent gestures inherent to Italian society. When in the late scenes the arrival of the new war is announced, what matters is less which war the film is referring to and more the human waste involved. Martin Eden ends revealing itself in a combination of sumptuous art direction with the documentary fragments that Marcello inserts throughout the film, as a fable of Italy’s 20th century formation.
Martin Eden is a film about an impossibility. A tale of self-annihilation. It’s main conclusion, inherited from London, is that there’s no possible place for the artist in the cultural industry. Everything here arrives in twos that deny each other. Let’s think, for instance, in the documentary attention with which Pietro Marcello fulfills Martin Eden in contrast with the screen presence of the terrific Luca Marinelli, almost a modern Alain Delon. It is a movie star moving through those spaces – the film never let one forget. The friction between Marinelli and the action is a constant. He will be more at home exhausted in the Viscontian decadence of the later scenes after he becomes a famous author than in the earlier struggling ones. What matters is that Marinelli’s Eden remains at any time an uncomfortable and displaced figure. Non-belonging is the essence of his existence.
The entire film is made out of these doubles that self-annihilate: opening/alienation towards the world, a radical/bourgeois education, commitment/individualism, the seduction of the old aristocratic world/the historical certainty that it is soon to disappear. The main duality is probably between form and narrative. There are Marcello’s fragmentary semi documentary style and London’s romantic tale, coexisting in as much tense as the movie star and his surroundings. Martin Eden is a novel of the Italian 20th century and also a film very self-conscious about the history of Italian cinematographic forms through the same period. It is fascinating to think that the sometimes dormant Italian cinema, produced at the same year Martin Eden and Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor, two reckonings with Italy’s last century, formative histories that come from diametrically opposing places: in The Traitor, the history of the gangster film and Cosa Nostra’s position as a link between the Ca6tholic church and traditional family; in Martin Eden, the history of the fine high art and the impossible match between Marxism and individualism– that is a constant of Italian art of the period.
Pietro Marcello does a radical operation of bringing inside his film large romantic arc a series of small detritus found through his country history. An appropriation of the texture of old registers that brings to mind the work experimental filmmakers Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci-Lucchi did for decades. It is worth pointing out that their work was centered above all to the imagetic remains of the great wars and colonialism. Those fragments that keep interrupting Martin Eden’s self-annihilating trajectory operate through a similar principle – they remind us of this Italian history of exploitation that remains just outside the main action. They redimension Eden’s place in such a process. A lot of Martin Eden might suggest a place in the big Italian romantic tradition and its contradictions, the cinema of a Visconti or Bertolucci, but Pietro Marcello prefers to shatter it, push these contradictions upfront, realize its impossibility.