Martin Eden

Italy (2019) Dir. Pietro Marcello

Does art influence culture or does culture influence art? Do you have to be a certain class of person to appreciate or create art, or can you become a certain type of person because you appreciate or create art? In other words, can the two co-exist without one scorning the other?

Uneducated sailor Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) lives a proletariat’s life until he saves Arturo Orsini (Giustiniano Alpi) from a beating. As a reward, Arturo takes Martin to his bourgeois home for a thank you dinner, where he is impressed by their art collection and Artruo’s sister Elena (Jessica Cressy). She lends Martin a book by Baudelaire, beginning his affair with literature, igniting his desire to become a writer.

Lacking academic qualifications, Martin carries on regardless, earning constant rejections for his poems and short stories. After discovering the political writings of Herbert Spencer and meeting philosopher Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), Martin decides to write about similar issues and his career takes off. In later life, as a successful author, Martin finds himself at odds with the grand life he now lives and his political opinions.

That has to be one of the heaviest plot summaries I’ve ever written, though I am sure there will be some who won’t describe this as a heavy film. It is a ponderous one, and at 128 minutes often a slog, due to the pronounced philosophical and political discourse, despite the fact this isn’t really about either of those issue per se; as alluded to at the beginning of this review, this is asking if art makes the man or man makes the art.

Martin Eden is loosely adapted from the 1909 novel by Jack London, a writer known primarily for his adventure stories who was, like Eden, bored with the fame these novels brought him. London’s original work, based in US but relocated to Italy here, was written as a spleen venting exercise in response to not being recognised for his true artistic ambitions. He later claimed his main point of attacking individualism was missed.

In fact, that is was a core difference between London and Eden – London was a socialist whilst Eden denied this ideal, referring to it as slave morality yet confusingly was always fighting a silent war against the bourgeoisie. Arriving at Chez Orsini, the housekeeper sneers at the uncouth visitor like he was dirt on her shoe, and the atmosphere at the dinner table is gravid with pretence and duty.

Enchanted by Elena and the books lent to him, Martin endeavours to better himself but finds resistance, even told he must start at junior school to pass his formal education. Rather tellingly, Elena appears unbothered by Martin’s working class background yet is the one who tells him he’ll never be a writer without an education – is she inspiring him to improve himself or so she has a qualified intellectual on her arm?

Success isn’t immediate, but Martin perseveres until he finally strikes gold, and within the two-year window he asks Elena to give him. However, Elena thinks Martin should be writing nice stories to entertain people, not dark, politically angry pieces where despair rules. She is proven wrong when his stories become more successful, yet at the same time the Orsini family suddenly see Martin as suitable for Elena after all.

Jump forward a few years and Martin is now a global name, living in luxury with his new girlfriend Margherita (Denise Sardisco), a former waitress he met whilst with Elena, but now an insufferable egomaniac. Like a rock star in full addiction mode, he can barely function yet churns out rubbish and expects the public to swallow, yet hates them when they do and loathes them if they don’t.

Ordinarily, this would be the “becoming the very thing you hated” trope but there is a subtle nuance at work here – Martin is very aware of the riches his writing has bought him but it really hasn’t made him happy. Internally, he is fighting a battle with himself as a man betraying his working class principles to preach to the same group of people from his ivory tower. But like London’s “botched” attempt, this doesn’t come across as such, instead painting Martin as someone up his own arse.

Martin wanted to be better, but he never wanted others to be better as that is socialism in a nutshell. In another ineluctable twist, when Martin visits his sister, his brother-in-law is now running a shop and wants Martin to be there for the opening to ensure a bigger crowd. The only person to benefit from Martin’s generosity and remain humble about it Maria (Carmen Pommella), the widow who took Martin in after he was evicted.

Pietro Marcello’s second foray into scripted feature films is a wondrous creation on a visual level because of how he has matched the aesthetic of 1970’s cinema (although the period setting is vague and undisclosed), to the point it looks like it was made fifty years ago. Rather cheekily, Marcello uses genuine footage from the period and before, which has been colourised and graded to fit in with his newly shot material.

As Martin, Luca Marinelli is tasked with carrying the film on his broad shoulders, from his down and out days on the docks to the comfort of the penthouse, and does so with mesmeric aplomb. In the first half, his brooding, earnest nature has a few rough edges to him but his is relatable; in the later acts, his blonde longer hair makes him resemble a volatile Steve Harley, whom you don’t want to come up and see.

Not one for the multiplex crowd, Martin Eden works best if you understand the message and themes behind the story, otherwise it will play out as another “trappings of fame” tale albeit obtuse and plodding. The stunning presentation helps ease the pain for those with low patience, otherwise leave this one for the more discerning film fan.