Movie Review: “Martin Eden,” a Jack London novel, an Italian film

It’s not utter madness to reset American novelist Jack London’s overtly political novel “Martin Eden” in the Red Epoch Italy of the 1960s.

The title character (Luca Marinelli of TV’s “Trust”) rants about “individualism” and “socialism” and “capitalism” as a young man teaching himself literature, politics and how to write. He adds fame to his rage repertoire in his later years, a famous poet, novelist and essayist who no longer speaks at union rallies and fumes guiltily about that.

The ferment of the time, with liberal capitalists kidding themselves about how much they hate the very idea of socialism, gives the adaptation an appropriate backdrop, if nothing else.

But this meandering Pietro Marcello (“Lost and Beautiful”) film seems to exist out of time, a fictional “struggling artist” biography as rife with cliches as it is obtuse in story and message.

Martin is a merchant sailor when we meet him, young and curious about the world beyond his reach. He’s head-turning handsome, hotheaded and two-fisted. But he recognizes the dead-end that being stuck in his circumstances promises him. And he resolves to change that by becoming an autodidact. He will teach himself.

Martin’s first break comes when he intervenes in a beating a rich kid is taking. That introduces him into the world of the cultured and well-off Orsinis, and fair Elena (Jessica Cressy) becomes his Unattainable. She speaks French, plays the piano and is as well-read and cultured as any college student he’ll ever meet.

“Mr. Eden,” she says, keeping him at a formal remove for the longest time, “what you need is an education. I can see you’ve got intelligence.”

Martin strives to educate himself, and writes her letters from his various gigs on “my incessant march through knowledge (in Italian with English subtitles).” One more menial job and he vows to make a living by writing, turning out short stories and essays which every newspaper and magazine in Italy turns down. “Return to sender” packages are even more brutal than rejection notes.

He gives himself “two years to prove my talent” can support them, but gets sidetracked in his readings. He takes to the long-abandoned philosopher and social theorist Herbert Spencer, the man who read Darwin and coined the phrase “Survival of the fittest,” which he applied to every sort of transaction and interaction.

Martin throws Spencer into every argument, which makes him no friends even as his writing finally gains notice.

The cliches raining all over this lengthy and often tediously-talky affair include choosing the aspirational mate over the beauty of his own class, the mentor (Carlo Cecchi) who challenges him not to sell out and the tubercular hanky that mentor is sure to cough into at some point.

The TB and incredibly tin-eared Spencer obsession are among the dated elements of this good-looking, artfully-made drama. Marcello inserts early 20th century silent film footage clips to make the connection between the ferment London (and Martin Eden) write in, and the script takes pains to include a loud, pontificating debate between smug members of the Orsini circle and Martin, whose tolerance of socialism (if not his embrace of it) they dismiss as “one of the maladies of youth.”

Marinelli is never less than committed to this “primitive” artist character, a guy not shy about throwing a punch and treating women as prizes, setting his jaw at being reminded of how poorly-educated he is and how his success may be the ultimate revenge, even if the end, that’s not enough.

Nor is “Martin Eden.” This high-minded London story is far closer to the leftist/workers-unite allegories of the German socialist/novelist B. Traven. But even Traven took care to wrap his politics and striving/struggling characters in entertaining adventure parables like “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

London, already famous and well-off thanks to his early 1900s hits “Call of the Wild,” “White Fang” and “The Sea Wolf,” worked out his dissatisfaction with himself and his relationship with the world with “Martin Eden.” But in English or in Italian, that was never going to be particularly cinematic, something the filmmakers here must have realized when they gave up on editing this into something more coherent and entertaining.

Cast: Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Carlo Cecchi and Denise Sardisco

Credits: Pietro Marcello script by Pietro Marcello and Maurizio Braucci , based on a novel by Jack London. A Kino Lorber release.

Running time: 2:09

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2 Responses to Movie Review: “Martin Eden,” a Jack London novel, an Italian film

  1. Luke Patterson says:

    The NPR review I just heard found this work praiseworthy enough to sound like (he) would give Martin Eden 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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