Sixteen mm film stock has been used so often recently, in acclaimed independent films like Carol (2015) and Jackie (2016), that it has begun to feel like a shortcut to haptic textures. But it serves a textual purpose in Martin Eden, Pietro Marcello’s adaptation of Jack London’s 20th century fable, where time stretches indefinite. The film is structured around liminal temporality: scenes are set at different points in the 1900s according to what suits the vibe. But Martin is no Benjamin Button. Marcello rather faithfully adapts this foundling tale, something of a great expectation story transported from California into Italy, so that the backdrop of the nation’s various tumult can drive the narrative: ideological warfare, communism, the blackshirts, union organising and literary majesty become a sandbox of ideas that Marcello picks up and puts down at will. The rigid quality of the novel’s spine gives him a groundwork in which to do this: Martin’s own journey is never lost amidst the temporal and archival discursions.
Martin Eden is a streetwise young man whose imposing stature and wide face make him seem like an honest ideal of the Italian male. An Italian Stallion, if you will. And the first 30 minutes intensely announces Luca Marinelli as a star, with the camera practically making love to his features. First, it establishes his sexiness, as he seduces a woman from his Naples neighbourhood (Denise Sardisco) through dance; then his strength, as he rescues the meek but wealthy Arturo Orsini (Giustiniano Alpi) from a beating; then his low class, as Arturo takes Martin back to his well-to-do household, setting up the major conflict of the film. On entry to the Orsini house, a servant from Martin’s Naples neighbourhood looks him up and down — Martin’s ill fitting leather jacket and sneering expression is a problem. You shouldn’t be a guest here, her eyes say. Martin is introduced to Orsini big sister Elena (Jessica Cressy), beautiful but so shielded by the walls of her entitlement that she can’t even decipher his accent. The pair are smitten, so Martin sets about on receiving a sentimental education, hoping to embark on a grand literary career, and to enter high society.
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In the Jonathan Demme mode, Martin Eden indulges in eye contact being made directly with the camera. Marcello uses his handheld camera to situate it somewhere between POV-shot and direct address to the audience. Despite the political rhetoric, Martin Eden is intensely romantic film, the love stories within it are put across with simplicity. Most of the film is handheld, using simple shot/reverse shot.
Marcello deftly switches between this filmmaking and the use of archival footage, which sometimes represents memory, and other times interacts with the narrative proper, like when colorised archive footage is followed by a colourised shot of Martin, coming to shore. In Naples, he looks around the town and each reverse shot is an archival close up of a face. Sometimes it shows Italy in the 10s or 20s, and as the film continues, Marcello returns to a shot from the 1800s of a sinking sailboat. At other times, clips from old Italian films express Martin’s fears and anxieties, such as when when he considers going to primary school. Marcello uses a scene of a toothless tramp learning to write Martin’s name in front of a classroom full of hysterical kids, while the electronic soundtrack contributes to the conflicting modernism.
Marcello also indulges in geographical ambiguity to dislocate the viewer at first. At the start, the shots of the docks and the viewer’s knowledge of the book’s setting leads to the assumption of a U.S. setting, until Lira gets mentioned, and soon Naples is named aloud. The city, which recalls the René Clément Genoa-set runaway convict film Le mura di Malapaga (1949), starring Jean Gabin, is all back alleys and brick buildings haunted by history, where a wrong turn can end with a visit to the hospital. This invests the viewer deeper into Martin’s psychology: his straight faced determination supersedes these temporal issues, unbinding him from anything but his own motivations. Time and place might melt around him, but Martin still searches for the same impossible goal of self-actualisation.
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Soon, Martin has lost himself in the search for a new individualism. When he sees the girl from the opening dance again, he spits, “I used to be like her… you wouldn’t have understood what she says,” repeating Elena’s dismissal of the underclass. Problems of class treachery are rife. The more he attempts to assimilate, the more those from upper classes refer to him as “A poor wretch.” Martin can’t leave behind his urchin beginnings, its in his face — which is how the film lands on its central discussions of communism vs. individualism (fascism is never mentioned by name, although the blackshirts are spotted at some point). Martin tries all manner of ideology out, motivated really by an internal compunction to rise above the muck from whence he slithered. For Martin, nothing more offensive than being labelled a socialist. He perceives his inability to shift between class stratas as a personal flaw, not a larger systemic problem. His introduction to the finer things morphs him into a callow figure of decadence; it would be unsurprising to find a decrepit portrait of him in the attic.
Marcello makes this decay apparent. In the final act, a leap forward in Martin’s chronology (where a modern Volvo is as visible as 1960s cameras) sees Marinelli don a terrible wig and vampyric false teeth. It may be the film’s breaking point for some, recalling the whole I Drink Your Milkshake Business from There Will Be Blood, with most major characters returning to visit Martin in a vast mansion. This section provides a rumination on what it is to get what you want, if that’s dissonant to the spiritual principles you thought you’d upheld. Martin becomes inarticulate to his own political ideas, too wrapped up in his cloak of individualism to continue to shape how people see the world. “Life disgusts me, and now I can’t love anything.” His underdog status has been lost, and Marinelli convincingly captures this transfiguration.
In Martin Eden, the games that Marcello plays with form and structure coalesce into an immensely moving film, which — grounded by the standout turn from Marinelli — offers a new direction for the stale “Great American Novel” adaptation. By design, it feels eternal.
Ben Flanagan (@peche_lives) is a British critic and recent MA Film graduate from The University of Bristol. He’s contributed to Mubi Notebook, DMovies and has lots of feelings on classic Hollywood, Paul Verhoeven and online cinema culture.