Martin Eden

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Martin Eden
"Luca Marinelli is excellent in the lead, balancing intensity with intelligence, convincing at every stage of Martin's journey." | Photo: Courtesy of NYFF

Traditionally, many sailors have refrained from learning how to swim. The reasoning behind this is that if one falls overboard far from land, and without hope of rescue, a quick death is better than a slow one. Martin Eden is not that sort of sailor. He is a man who swims against the tide, determined to carry himself as far as he can. It is only this kind of unrestrained hope than can bring a man face to face with true despair.

A sailor still, he is, though transplanted in this film to Italy, far from the Californian setting of Jack London's novel. There are still factory workers here but we feel more keenly the presence of the peasants and the shadow of more ancient class divides. Like Daniel Keys' Algernon, Martin is a happy-go-lucky character when we first meet him, broadly satisfied with the life he has despite some family disputes. Lean and hungry for life, quick to learn whatever he applies himself to, he's at ease out of doors with the sun on his face, relying on his muscles and his quick wits. When one day he saves a stranger from a beating, however, everything changes. He meets the stranger's grateful upper class family, and once he has had a taste of their life, he will never be satisfied again.

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The film initially presents as a romance, Martin's eye caught by the beautiful young Elena (Jessica Cressy), but what develops is more complicated. To Elena, Martin is excitingly exotic. He quickly becomes a project: she takes it upon herself to educate him, lending him books and helping him to connect with influential people. Though it soon becomes apparent that he far exceeds her in intellectual ability, and he becomes frustrated by what he now perceives as a patronising attitude on her part, Martin never stops loving her. He works hard and hopes to become a successful writer, which would enable them to get married. Soon, his fame becomes as appealing to hr as his working class status once was, but as people the two are growing further and further apart.

Luca Marinelli is excellent in the lead, balancing intensity with intelligence, convincing at every stage of Martin's journey. There's an easiness about his movement and his conversations with people of all classes that reflects the simplicity of the world from which the character emerged, but we still see the darkness flickering in his eyes and his temper can flare up in an instant, usually in response to political differences or others' failure to grasp what to him seems obvious. Though there's little room to develop the subplots from the novel, director Pietro Marcello shows us the damage this does to minor characters who are drawn to his flame but easily burnt.

Luminous cinematography brings the landscapes of Naples and Campania to life, making the elegant houses of the wealthy and the crowded seafront where the working men gather equally beguiling. Martin sees moral or philosophical dangers in both, yet Marcello does a good job of conveying what London lamented too many critics miss - that it is the hero's fierce individualism that harms him most. The murmuring pressures created by other people are mirrored in the rhythms of the sea as it laps hungrily against the shore, captured in Stefano Grosso's evocative sound design. This is a deeply sensual film, inviting viewers to feel as well as think, a means of connecting with the physicality of Marton's world.

Intellectually and stylistically as bold as its hero, this is a gem of a film - not perfectly polished, but correspondingly unique.

Reviewed on: 17 Dec 2020
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A man struggles to better his circumstances, motivated by his love for a woman from a bourgeois family.

Director: Pietro Marcello

Writer: Maurizio Braucci, Pietro Marcello, based on the novel by Jack London

Starring: Luca Marinelli, Carlo Cecchi, Jessica Cressy, Vincenzo Nemolato, Marco Leonardi, Denise Sardisco, Carmen Pommella, Autilia Ranieri, Savino Paparella, Elisabetta Valgoi, Pietro Ragusa, Giustiniano Alpi, Dario Iubatti, Anna Patierno, Vincenza Modica

Year: 2019

Runtime: 125 minutes

Country: Italy, France, Germany


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