As we teeter toward the death throes of a civilization choked with the excess of industry, bending beneath the rule of technocrats and oligarchs, relocating the events of MARTIN EDEN to mid-century Naples feels a particularly inspired choice. Pietro Marcello’s adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 novel manages to transcend the philosophical rumination of individualism versus collectivism. The strained social conditions of Italy’s post-war era is an ideal backdrop; the absence of a structured socialist movement at the time seeded a slow evolution towards more rigorous capitalism. This reframing requires us to consider the moral failings of our own paradigm, a natural progression of that same systemic arc, which prioritizes greed and personal ascendency above the health of society as a living, breathing whole.
Shot on 16mm film, MARTIN EDEN utilizes restored archival footage, anachronistic and jarring, to remind the audience of its role as an objective witness to philosophical and sociological theory. The subject of the lens’ focus is the titular character, a handsome and vivacious young sailor (Luca Marinelli) who sates his curiosity in whatever books he can barter for. He loves life, yet drifts through it, unmoored without any clear ambition to guide him. One morning, he saves a young man, Arturo Orsini (Giustiniano Alpi), from a physical attack, and stumbles his way into the realm of the intellectual elite.
Martin is charismatic, yet coarse around the edges, desperate to fit into a world whose mores elude his grasp. Upon meeting Arturo’s sister, Elena (Jessica Cressy), he falls headfirst into infatuation; she’s soft-spoken, naive, well-educated, and has the delicate beauty of a china doll. Her parents regard him with wariness, recognizing his hunger and ambition. “I want to be like you,” Martin confesses; Elena explains that outside of accepting help from her well-connected father, his only point of entry is education. Thus begins Martin’s cycle of work and rejection: he labors in a foundry, fails his college-level entrance exam, submits short stories to countless magazines—each rejected, unopened.
Beyond simple ambition, Martin’s pride defines him. As a staunch individualist, the concept appeals to his obsession with Natural Law, which he sees as being at odds with socialism’s Moral Law. As a white male, he can afford to fall into the comforting concept of “survival of the fittest” as an objective universal principal. Enamored of Herbert Spencer’s philosophy (widely considered the kernel of Libertarianism), he can’t see how his own moral code is at odds with itself. When Martin recognizes a waitress, Margherita (Denise Sardisco), from his former working class life, he’s rude and dismissive, recoiling from what she represents.
In his quest to find success as a writer, Martin gradually reintegrates into the world he came from. Maria (Carmen Pommella), a mother of two children, offers him live-in employment after a chance encounter; because she’s a widow and requires physical labor of a man, his pride allows him to accept the act of kindness. He meets Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), a mature writer who introduces him to artistic world of bohemians and cultural subversives. Suddenly, Martin is no longer hobnobbing with the rich and educated, but the marginalized and the politically radical.
The pain and poverty Martin witnesses infuses his stories. Elena criticizes it: “your writing is too raw”. Infuriated by her ignorance, he takes her to the town’s impoverished underbelly. “Why should I feel ashamed writing about this?” Martin demands, as she recoils in discomfort, near tears. The more empathy he feels for the poor, the more the Orsinis and their ilk disgust him. Russ takes him to a Socialist meeting, but Martin still only sees the ideology through Spencer’s eyes, one that represents “slave morality” and the eternal struggle of Man versus the State.
Against all odds, Martin finally gets published. Though elevated by improbable success, he can’t reconcile the inherent immorality of excessive wealth, which requires exploitation of others. After haranguing a friend of the Orsinis on the hypocrisy of capitalist industry being the greatest beneficiary of Socialism, Martin and Elena become estranged, the chasm of their class divide too great to overcome.
This cognitive dissonance pulls him further into excess and depression as he ages. Isolated, reciting screeds against the ascension of Greek and Roman super-civilizations made possible due to to slave labor, Martin is still incapable of recognizing the truth: in his individual success, he made a Faustian bargain with capitalism itself. He sought self-elevation instead of elevation of his class as a whole.
Luca Marinelli’s Volpi Cup-winning performance is breathtaking; not only does he carry the weight of the entire film on his shoulders, he walks a filament-thin balance, both rough-hewn and refined, equal parts infuriating and endearing. With his loping physicality and an unguarded smile, Marinelli combines aristocratic bone structure and asymmetric imperfection; his heavy-lidded, byzantine eyes hypnotize—impossible to look away from even when contorted with the atavistic ugliness of grief.
In his essay for Sight and Sound Magazine, director Bong Joon-Ho called MARTIN EDEN, “One of the best films of the last decade.”
I’m inclined to agree. Marcello brilliantly merges the sensibility of classical Italian auteurs with urgent modern politics. One scene late in the film features Martin drunkenly engaged in a theatrical duel in front of a captive audience. Its visuals are hauntingly similar to Fellini’s SATYRICON, colors so vibrant they seem surreal, degenerative violence surrounded by opulent beauty.
Jack London described his novel as a parable of a man who had to die, “Not because of his lack of faith in God, but because of his lack of faith in men.”
As a film, MARTIN EDEN is both a cutting attack on individualism and a perfectly-timed parable for today’s failing isolationist system, wherein the myth of meritocracy and belief in inherent superiority lures susceptible young men. Both Elena and Margherita exist in Martin’s orbit as representational concepts of two disparate social classes; idealized avatars instead of fully-formed individuals. Apropos, an early indicator of white male radicalization is misogyny.
Kino Lorber will release Martin Eden in the US on October 16.