Who knew Jack London, of all the people, would have a time? One of the last films to open in theaters, before the lockdown was imposed, was The Call of the Wild. And now Martin Eden introduces himself. The London novel of this title, first published in 1909, has been adapted, has it been adapted into a film. It’s in Italian, to begin with, and the main setting has moved from Oakland to Naples. From a port city, that is to say to another; the director, Pietro Marcello, inherited the outside gaze of London, constantly desiring the next horizon. Never be without a great escape.
As for the schedule, search me. Considering the many quarrels we see in the film between left and right, the needs of the collective versus the strength of individual will, we could observe any part of Italian history of the last century. Some clothes have a tailored style that would suit the twenties, but the soundtrack resonates with Europop from the seventies and eighties, and televisions are of a similar vintage. Cars too.
One thing has not changed: as on the page, the hero is Martin Eden. He first set sail at the age of eleven, and we feel he consumed much of the world before the story began. On screen, played with bullish vigor by Luca Marinelli, he’s a handsome devil, even if his appearance isn’t doing well. More hungry than happy, he is a creature of salty appetites, his entry into the film marked by sex and violence. First, he takes a young woman, Margherita (Denise Sardisco), and makes love to her on a boat, under the cover of night; then he wakes up to see a helpless youngster being bullied on a nearby pier and, one punch later, saves the boy and brings him back to his family, the Orsini. And that’s where Martins worries and his opportunities come to life.
The Orsinis are not only wealthy but languidly wealthy, and they could have walked around from a Visconti movie. When Elena (Jessica Cressy), the rescued kid’s sister, approaches Martin to thank him for his good deed, she drifts towards him, in an untargeted blur, and this physical ease, more than anything she says. , prepares us for the fundamental shock that will support the film. Marcello observes obsessively the movements of his characters, rough and soft, and what they announce. Martin is a born brawler, and his bragging stride, ideal for a ship’s deck, is ill-suited for quieter company. Faced with the lovely Elena, he appears as a blunderer and a rube; invited to lunch with the Orsini, he wipes the sauce off his plate with a piece of bread while talking to his hosts about poverty. On dry land, it is all at sea.
It was during an ocean voyage that London wrote the essentials of Martin Eden, and the most autobiographical novel suffers from an awkward lurch. Yet the swell of it suits its theme: in an unjust age, how to climb the heights of social class? Is it enough to be ambitious and believe, with a raging heart, that you deserve to be lifted up? If you stuff your brain, will that be enough? The difficult birth of the twentieth century was marked by such concerns; you hear them in Knut Hamsuns Victoria (1898), and in Leonard Bast’s supplications, in EMForsters Howards End (1910), and they resurface in the movie Marcellos, as Martin plaintively tells Elena, I’ve decided that I wanted to be like you. She fixes him with her calm blue gaze and answers, Mr. Eden, what you need is an education.
Sworn to make his offer, Martin sets out to furnish his mind. In fact, he’s overstepping his tenure, spending his petty cash not just on books, but on a used typewriter, resolving to make writing his career to become one of the eyes the world sees through. A crazy plan, guaranteed to destroy the copious health he developed over the course of aquatic life, but that’s his choice. Needing a cheap and quiet place to doodle, he lodges in a humble country house owned by a widow he meets with her children on a train. One of the blessed virtues of this film is that everything about lovers, landladies, fights, and philosophical ideas seems to come about by chance rather than planned in advance. The experiment is taken on the wing, then released.
It’s no surprise to learn that Marcello made documentaries, both short and long, before turning to feature films. Martin Eden is the second of them, after Lost and Beautiful (2015), and you’ve rarely seen a more choppy or self-interrupting movie. It’s in color, but the director has a habit of cutting out snippets of old footage, a lot of it in black and white or sepia, cut from Lord Knows Where, as if loath to exclude memories or fortuitous resemblances that occur. him. The result is more like a dog ear scrapbook than a regular story, and the fun is trying to figure out how the fragments fit together. Why, for example, the sudden close-up of a twisting octopus, in which someone bites? Are we meant to recall the scorpions, fighter to the death, which appear without explanation in Buuels Lge d’Or (1930)? Or does Marcello alert us to the fight between Martin and Elena, who can barely keep each other out?
The problem with writers, as with cephalopods, is that they can’t help but squirt ink, especially in times of great emotion. Unwavering in his quest, Martin sends story after story to various newspapers, and ends up winning the gold, although Elena laments the hardness of her work: too much death, too much pain, she says. So now it’s her turn to offer education; he gives Elena a guided tour of his Naples, rowdy and noisy, where he is accosted by prostitutes and pimps. The camera, portable and jolting, accompanies the walk, and Elena, versed in refinement, slips away and clings to Martins’ arm. The film is a kind of romance, but it also exerts an anti-romantic ferocity, suggesting that the rift between rich and poor is, whatever we aspire to think, impassable. Falling in love can be difficult when you are trying to climb at the same time.
All of this confirms that Martin Eden is vigorous with political intent. The strikers crack down on a man who warns them against their union’s demands, and Martin receives the same welcome when he addresses a crowd of activists, ridiculing them like slaves. He also befriends a haggard old radical, Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), who spits blood into a handkerchief and advises socialism, the only thing that will save you from the disappointment that is approaching. Since the film was shown at festivals last year, some viewers have complained that its politics felt confused. Well. I have little or no desire to watch a movie that displays its ideological clarity, and, moreover, isn’t it in the greedy nature of heroes to be influenced by belligerent instincts? As in the original novel, we find him studying Herbert Spencer, the once fashionable and now half-forgotten Victorian philosopher who coined the phrase survival of the fittest. But Martin wouldn’t read Spencer between the mid to late 20th century. He is reading another HerbertMarcuse, that is, one whose one-dimensional man of 1964 rejects the flattery of existing political programs.
The most shocking thing, and also the saddest, about Marcellos’ film is the ascendancy of its central figure. I was sure Martin would fail, especially after a mortifying evening in which he serenaded Elena with worms. I wrote them, he said, for my lady. (False. They were written by TSEliot and Martin has stolen Then there’s a dinner at the Orsini’s, where he grumbles against the liberal establishment and the farce of democracy in terms that don’t seem out of place in the mouth of a fascist. Take a leap forward a few years, however, and you meet a very different and famous Martin, with an editor preparing him for a visit to America, and rows of readers clinging to his statements. The writer Martin Eden does not exist, he tells them, describing himself as a thug and a sailor. Success rose to his head and took root. Spoiled, emaciated and sick, he shouts the words he dictates to his assistant and gives a wad of bills to a revolutionary. Her hair falls lightly to her forehead. Self-loathing exudes like sweat.
There is more to meditate on in this unusual film than to be confident. Wide rather than deep, and layering vintage with modern, it’s a collage of shifting surfaces, a fitting shape for a pilgrim soul like Martin, whose gifts, though many, do not include the knack for standing still. Agitation of all kinds abounds. Two young children are dancing in the street, as if they can’t stop; some books are read with avidity, but others are thrown onto a flaming pyre; and, in the final scene, an old man walks along a beach at sunset screaming that the war has started. What war? What country, friends, is it? It doesn’t matter. All we know is that for the Martin Edens of this world, there will never be peace.
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