The individual vs. the collective…political awakenings…being unsatisfied with bourgeois success…fighting to rise above your station and “Romeo & Juliet” type love story — this is what is at the heart of director Pietro Marcello‘s new film “Martin Eden.” Loosely based on a Jack London’s 1909 classic novel of the same name, Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) is a self-taught proletarian with grand artistic aspirations on a quest to prove himself worthy of the affections of his love Elena (Jessica Cressy). While on the surface, the film may seem like the typical star-crossed lovers’ (Martin is a poor sailor while Elena is a wealthy university student) story, Marcello’s “Martin Eden” is so much more than that. This sprawling epic romance and political drama pays homage to the classic Italian film tradition.
Martin is thrown into Elena’s family’s path one day when he helps her younger brother. In return for his help, Arturo invites Martin in for dinner. While initially feeling unworthy and uneasy, Martin’s charms help him fit right in with the family over dinner. He is enchanted by Elena and can’t hide it. The attraction between the two is instantaneous. But will her parents approve? Elena is cultured and refined — everything that Martin is not, but aspires to be. But Martin is willing to prove them wrong — he is intelligent, has a thirst for knowledge and wants to better himself and learn how to speak and think like them.
As Martin ventures out on his quest for betterment and fulfillment, he pleads for Elena to give him two years to prove himself and fulfill his dream of becoming a successful, published writer. He works odd jobs to sustain himself after having a falling out with his brother-in-law and being kicked out of the house. While looking for work one day, he comes across a widow and her two kids who offer him refuge and help support him in reaching his dreams. Martin wants to be the “eyes of the world” and to be the voice of the people and writes the reality he lives and sees while everyone else (editors, his sister and even Elena) tells him that people want to escape — they want happy endings and he must change what he writes about or he’ll never succeed. But Martin is determined and forges ahead even in the wake of rejection letter after rejection letter. But this tests his relationship with Elena as she wants him to take a more stable path with the prodding of her mother.
At a party hosted by Elena’s family, Martin catches the eye elderly intellectual Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi) who takes the budding writer under his wing. Under his tutelage, Martin has a political awakening and starts moving in socialist circles as murmurs of war and revolution bubble just under the surface. As Martin becomes a public figure, his political affiliations and thoughts bristle against Elena’s bourgeois family and she calls off the engagement. He decides to go back to “his people” where he belongs. With the love of his life no longer his, Martin goes full steam ahead in his career and artistic aspirations and slowly begins to unravel and spiral out of control.
“Martin Eden” expertly blends romanticism with neorealism turning this story originally set in America into an authentic Italian story. The use of archival footage blends seamlessly with the live action. The warm, muted color palette and film style makes this film feel super art-house — it has a ’70s instant-classic feel. Its the classic story of pulling yourself up by the boot-straps. But you can’t talk about this story without mentioning the standout, passionate performance by Luca Marinelli (Netflix’s “The Old Guard”). Marinelli so embodies the pain and determination of Martin that we get lost in his portrayal, if nothing else, making for a film well-worth the watch.
With an ambigious ending and an even more ambigious time period (is it the ’40s, ’50s or ’80s???) in which the film is set, Marcello weaves a sprawling fairytale like story — “The Princess and the Sailor.” But it can also be understood as a cautionary tale about chasing ambition and changing one’s station in life, but never losing yourself or forgetting where you came from. It’s one part political commentary and one part painful love story. The film tenderly yet realistically shows the class divide during this time — there are two separate worlds here. The film feels like 2018’s “Happy as Lazzaro” — depressing, epic, tragic, raw yet surprisingly optimistic and open-ended but still satisfying.
“Martin Eden” will be in select theaters and virtual cinemas on October 16, 2020.