Martin Eden is a subtle and complex character study of one man’s ideological tempest.
Martin Eden — a character first created by Jack London, in 1909 — is largely defined by the many interpersonal and socioeconomic conflicts that make up his beleaguered existence: he’s too ambitious to continue his life as a sailor, so he aspires to better himself; his family is not of the necessary class for him to get an education, so he must become a self-taught writer instead; he rejects socialism, but continues to live off of the support of others while his work continues to be ignored; and, ultimately, he’s too prideful to accept recognition when it finally comes to him, years later. Martin Eden’s own self-guided narrative is recognized as one that fervently promotes individualism. Italian writer/director Pietro Marcello‘s adaptation plays its hand subtly: the ways in which these disparate political ideologies intersect and interact within Eden’s life are suffused, throughout, with an approach to storytelling that abandons didacticism in favor of properly (and effectively) exploring the many internalizations that end up destroying him.
While most contemporary period pieces are content to just vaguely express these ideas in service of some grander thematic terms, Martin Eden refreshingly works through its class politics in real-time; Marcello gives complete narrative agency to our titular protagonist, while still imbuing the ideas of his film with a palpable urgency. Much of what helps to cast these conflicts in a more personal light comes from Luca Marinelli’s performance as Eden. This isn’t a traditionally flashy role, but Marinelli has such a distinctive presence, both psychically and emotionally, that he’s able to inhabit the screen with the same type of conflicting temperament that has defined this tragic hero type for over 100 years, one that wavers between the nobly ambitious and the stubbornly conceited.
Originally published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 3.