A deeply idiosyncratic survey of 20th-century political and social mores, director Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden transplants Jack London’s 1909 novel from the American West Coast to a liminal version of Italy situated somewhere in a limbo between the turn of the century and the two World Wars. Like the novel, Marcello follows the titular uneducated sailor (played with maximum swarthy charm by Luca Marinelli) on his journey from illiterate laborer to striving autodidact and ultimately to decadent, corrupted intellectual. After rescuing a young nobleman from a beating, Martin is introduced to the man’s family as a thank you. It is here that Martin catches a glimpse of how the privileged class lives, falling in love with both wealthy scion Elena (Jessica Cressy) and that great cultural signifier Baudelaire. Determined to join the ranks of the great writers and earn enough money to marry Elena, Martin traverses the ideological minefield of modern political philosophies, in time rejecting collective action for solipsistic individualism. Far from a dry, academic exercise, Martin Eden is a voluptuous, invigorating experience. Marinelli is a charming, inviting presence, a romantic dreamer whose transformation becomes tragic instead of ironic. Marcello infuses the material with a jittery immediacy, shooting in grainy Super 16mm with its deep, velvety blacks, and utilizing various forms of film stock and archival footage, clips from silent films, as well as new footage that’s been manipulated to look old and worn. It gives the film an essayistic quality, placing Martin Eden the film and Martin Eden the man into a kind of dialectic with the broad trajectory of the post-WWII movement from the New Deal towards neoliberalism. Marcello skips weeks, months, and eventually decades with a simple edit, and we eventually find Martin successful in his quest for upward mobility. Now older, with decrepit teeth, and a wild shock of unkempt hair, he finds that fame and fortune have come at the cost of his soul, and as the film closes we are left with a poetic elegy for a simpler past, albeit one that might only exist as the fantasy of a man driven insane by the world.
Published as part of Top 25 Films of 2020 — 10-1.