Review: Martin Eden

I haven’t read Jack London’s novel, which is supposedly an autobiographical affair outlining his genesis as a writer, but based on his other writings that I have read and the general tenor of autobiographical novels by writers, I can probably guess what the main theme is: the triumph of the individual sensibility over that of the crowd, and the suffering that comes with it. Pietro Marcello relocates the book’s setting from Oakland to Naples in a time that feels as if it’s early to mid-20th century (but since there are no references to any world wars, it may simply be a time out of mind). Martin (Luca Marinelli) is a sailor, a proletarian by birth who is uneducated but hungry for knowledge. He meets the socialite Elena (Jessica Cressy) after saving her brother from a beating, and develops a crush both on her and her bourgeois living situation. After a conversation with Elena about the poet Baudelaire, he decides to become a writer in a language, Italian, he’s not fluent in. Martin’s mission is simple and almost sad in its trite dramatic essence. He wants the respect of the better classes, initially so that he can marry Elena, since her parents can barely remain in the same room with him, but inevitably so he can get revenge on his own lowly past.

Naturally, Martin’s quest clashes with the actual realities of a life lived for art, not to mention the kind of self-awareness that attends the accumulation of knowledge. At first, Martin’s dedication to work rather than craft—he even buys a typewriter—is pathetic, and the film piles one visual cliche onto another, showing him typing, reading intently, looking out his window at the sky, brooding to beat the band. As he improves in both intellect and sensitivity, he comes to hate the rich while at the same time growing farther from his working class background. He becomes a socialist, a pretty articulate one, in fact, but loses sight of socialism’s egalitarian purpose.

London supposedly wanted to explore the distinctions between his own hatred of capitalist striving and the success with which the system had rewarded him as a writer. Martin Eden takes this idea to its natural conclusion, by showing the protagonist using his celebrity to damn those who would presume to “make” him great, and in that regard, it makes a kind of perverted sense that it takes place in Italy during a time that looks as if it produced the great neorealist films of the mid-20th century. (London’s book took place at the very beginning of the 20th century) Marcello even includes actual film clips from such movies, not to mention historical footage, throughout the movie as a kind of leitmotif to remind us how we’re supposed to be taking it all in. In the end, this sort of gambit just adds to the confusion of what such a gorgeously shot and structured movie is supposed to tell us about the life of the mind in a world where only some people are allowed such a thing. London’s story is not the best vehicle for exploring political truths, especially when you can’t really locate the setting in history. Martin not only abandons his values, but turns into something of a monster. That’s happened in Italy before, but I’m sure it didn’t happen this way.

In Italian. Now playing in Tokyo at Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

Martin Eden home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Avventurosa-IBC Movie-Shellac Sud-BR-Arte

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