The surface pleasures of MARTIN EDEN are profound in themselves, but the pleasure they provide compounds when you realise that surface itself is a tissue of lies. The screenwriter Maurizio Braucci described the film, with a shocking eloquence, as “a dream of the twentieth century”, and it’s difficult to express how accurately the phrase represents MARTIN EDEN: the film is set sometime after the First World War, possibly the 1920s, but the details confuse this demarcation — ’20s clothes, cigarettes and books exist in the same space as televisions, modern money, and electric trains. It’s a visual palimpsest.
Martin Eden himself (Luca Marinelli) is a sailor in Naples, on and off jobs; he’s uneducated but clever with his words and with the people around him: he’s generous and gregarious, so people warm to him quickly (it also helps that he’s gorgeous, and this fact is one of the first things spoken aloud in the film, in case it wasn’t obvious). After a night of dancing and lovemaking, he’s woken by the sound of a young man taking a beating in the harbour. He comes to the man’s rescue, dispatching the assailant with a swift right hook.
Unknowingly, Martin has just saved a member of the aristocratic Orsini family. He goes to the family’s home, and everyone immediately takes to his intelligence, and frankly, his cheekiness. This is especially the case with Elena (Jessica Cressly), the Orsini daughter, a cultured, extremely beautiful young woman who enthrals Martin. She’s taken with him too, but their possible romance is convoluted by Martin’s conviction that he should, under her tutelage, become a writer. Martin’s absorption in his reading is almost all-encompassing, and his unfortunate devotion to the work of Herbert Spencer pits him against everyone within sight: his opposition to gathering left-wing causes, and persistent strike action in Naples, foretells a descent into decadence.
Pietro Marcello’s film is a ravishing object: shot in 16mm with a beautiful attention to colour grading (lovely deep blues and reds and browns pervade), coupled with interruptions of archival, silent film footage, and newly shot footage brilliantly tinted: the browns the shade of dried blood or rotting book pages, and those ghostly pale blues of silent film stock. This footage plays a handful of roles — it acts as a way to embody Martin’s memories, his dreams, the images of his fiction, so closely tied together as they are.
Marinelli’s performance is gargantuan. He has a film star’s repose, an utterly specific physicality, and mounds of the star’s fuel: charm. His Martin has charm coming out of his ears, an ability to pinpoint the person he should be talking to, and doing little more than simply talking his way into their affections. He avoids homelessness by a chance meeting on a train: his easy, confident way of speaking appeals to a woman and her children riding in the same carriage, and she offers him a space in their home and long after in their lives. And although the power of his presence is mostly benign, there are darker hints which the latter part of the film draws out: for the majority of the running time though, he’s someone attuned to and pleased by, in Seamus Heaney’s lovely phrase, ‘the music of what happens.’
Creatively adapted from Jack London’s novel, MARTIN EDEN enacts a quick and profound temporal transition, moving forward years, answering a number of unanswered queries. In this the film resembles Paul Thomas Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD or, more recently, Alice Rohrwacher’s HAPPY AS LAZZARO.
It’s perhaps best not to reveal too much about where things go from here, but it’ll suffice to say the influence of his committed socialist poet friend Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi) is crucial; they become friends after Martin takes part in game during Elena’s birthday, placing his hand over a candle in the time it takes him to recite one of ‘his’ verses. (He claims it as his: it’s from T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding.) Russ arranges for Martin to attend a socialist rally, egging him on to the stage to argue against the workers. He spouts a line familiar to the men in the room, who jeer at him and boot him out. The film couldn’t be clearer about what this portends: the beliefs on display here caused the destruction of the twentieth century, and, MARTIN EDEN warns, are destroying our own.