Jack London’s Classic Novel gets an Award-Winning Italian Makeover



Wielding a demanding aloofness and an aesthetic that’s more than a little reminiscent of verité realism, it’s easy to mistakenly peg Pietro Marcello’s 2019 Martin Eden as discovery from the 1970s.  Considering that it proved to be a film of impressive acclaim and enthusiastic consideration during the 2020 film awards season (such as it was), this was plainly to its credit.  

It’s true that Martin Eden plays like an unearthed gem from fifty years prior.  It’s a feeling that’s furthered by the story’s own period setting, a kind of mid-century workaday hub.  For those familiar with the 1909 source novel of the same title by Jack London, the film’s time, sometime smack between then and now, might seem even more discombobulating.  That also goes for its Italian setting (from London’s Oakland) and the specificity of the political strife therein- all of which deeply matter to both London and Marcello.

And therein lies the tie that binds.  Previously working exclusively in the documentary form, Martin Eden marks Marcello’s narrative feature film debut.  Knowledge of his native Italian non-fiction filmmaking past not only clarifies the film’s overall street-level style, but it also illuminates why vintage documentary footage is used transitionally.  

Plot-wise, the film matches the overall description of the book: a blue collar working stiff (Martin Eden, played by Luca Marinelli) decides to pursue a career as a writer, his way.  His attempt to not only barge into a fairly walled-off business as a nobody coupled with his unwillingness to conform make him an immediate tough sell.  But Martin doesn’t care.  He is, if nothing else, tenacious.  He is, if nothing else, a product of his moment, one of perpetual social unrest and protest among the fevered working class.  Socialist rallies, parades, and demonstrations abound.  Martin, though seemingly exasperated by all of it, nevertheless finds his way to the podium on more than one occasion.  This is a man so stubborn that he can’t resist jumping into the public fray, even as it takes a toll on his weary soul.  It’s a feeling familiar to so many these days…

Still, for Martin, his biggest motivator is love.  More accurately, an unshakable, simmering fascination.  He falls for the booksmart-attractive Elena Orsini (Jessica Cressy), a buttoned-up young lady who’d just as soon marry a man like him than smile.  Martin, over the course of years of practical struggle for any kind of upward mobility, indeed takes up writing to impress Elena.  Her needle isn’t moved, though he himself becomes enamored with the writing process.  But, as noted, Martin is a tenacious one.  Just because he’s got a new love to focus on is no reason to abandon the pursuit that has gotten him this far.  Relational red flags abound, including political differences in the politically hot cultural moment- yet they continue in one another’s orbit.  A lot eventually happens in Martin Eden, though the resolution of the so-called love story, curiously enough, can’t be counted among them.  That’s its own track traveled.

On the heels of its pioneering virtual run (raising money for art house theaters) in the early weeks of the 2020 COVID shutdowns, Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray edition makes the most of the film’s elevated reputation.  Martin Eden’s intentionally grainy veneer is best served by this Blu-ray transfer, rendering the experience transportive as intended.  The bonus features aren’t lacking, either.  Director Pietro Marcello is seen interviewed twice, once by himself and in person and attempting English (he is subtitled for good measure); the second in a public Zoom chat along with lead actor Luca Marinelli, via an interpreter on behalf of Film at Lincoln Center’s 2020 showcase of the filmmaker’s work.  Surprisingly, it’s the Zoom interview that demonstrates the most technical clarity of the two.  The English language interview appears to be taken on the fly, under poor lighting and in a noisy room, recorded with an outboard microphone.  Finally on the Blu-ray, there is a commentary track with film scholar Giovanna De Luca, PhD.  The dense track is something of a ramble, as the chatty De Luca is prone to going into play-by-play mode in between her in-depth social observations and whatnot.

As played by Marinelli, Martin exudes a stubborn masculinity and rugged assuredness.  They’re the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle qualities that make a particular actor the director’s only choice for a role.  Marcello was smart in heeding the call of this wild tough with an obvious soft interior.  Marinelli’s Martin gives off the positive kind of male energy, the kind that isn’t afraid to put pen to paper.  In such, his fine haul of awards won for playing the part should be no surprise.  Marinelli’s looks don’t necessarily scream “handsome movie star”, but when given the top spot, it’s clear that that’s exactly what we’re watching.  But he is selfless enough to allow his Martin to be just another disgruntled member of the put-upon proletariat; the kind of man who, in real life, we wouldn’t know from Adam.  But Martin Eden is not Adam.  No, Eden is the garden.