Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 08, 2019 6:31 am 
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Jack London translated into Italian

This is director Pietro Marcello's half-terrific, half-off-putting Italian adaptation, with previous collaborator Maruizio Braucci, of the 1909 American novel by Jack London about a proletarian intellectual who decides to become a writer despite lack of education and is troubled by an upperclass girlfriend, becoming too successful too soon, then despairing. Though there was a 1942 film with Glenn Ford in the lead, the book is well known in Europe but now largely forgotten at home. In America London's dwindling fame rests on his north woods tales and he seems like a YA writer; I had no idea he had this philosophical side.

Pietro Marcello's movie is intermittently engaging, and grabs you from the start, thanks to the charisma and intensity of the rangy Italian star, Luca Marinelli, who proclaims his lines and stares out at us with his big blue eyes. Because Eden is a seaman the protagonist's home base has been shifted to Naples, and despite some lingering American names, Marcello has thoroughly Italianized this material.

Some of Marcello's avant-garde methods can be a bit distracting as we go along. Chief among these is indifference to what era of the twentieth century the action is taking place in, a freedom with period detail he doesn't handle with the same convincing panache as Derek Jarman. An initially intriguing use of edited archival footage also comes to seem distracting and arbitrary, though it's nice that he prefers film and worked with 16mm. , and the use of archival footage is something he is particularly wedded too.

It's also true that the character of Martin Eden becomes increasingly shrill and unsympathetic, but that is intended and part of the Jack London novel. This is not meant as a stirring intellectual bildingsroman so much as a disturbing cautionary tale, though that isn't clear until later. It's astonishing when Martin, pushed by his provocative older friend Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), addresses a socialist rally and attacks their ideology with nihilistic declarations, declaring socialism a "slave mentality." Later at an author lecture he simply sounds crazy. He gets out of control and starts to turn ugly.

As Lee Marshall writes in a Screen Daily review, Marcello is best known for his "unclassifiable arthouse documentaries" that "hover" between "reality" and "a cinematic fugue state." I found this a bit hard to take in the one previous film of his I'd seen, his 2015 Lost and Beautiful/Bella e perduta (ND/NF 2016). He has gone much more mainstream here, and with a bigger budget, though he ultimately makes no concessions to conventionality. Martin Eden is innately a strong, accessible story. We're grabbed by the protagonist's naive passion, his discovery of poetry and books through Elena Orsini (Jessica Cressy), the upperclass girl he mets by rescuing her little brother from a bully. The sympathy will dwindle rapidly later on.

It turns out that in the terms of Italian education, Martin is so lacking in general information that he needs to go back to primary school, which he's too poor to do, even if he could face the humiliation. Conventional education just isn't what he wants. He simply reads and reads and writes and writes and sends his stories and poems to magazines, which all come back marked "return to sender" - until one doesn't, he's paid an enormous 200,000 lire, and the tide turns toward wealth and fame.

The relationship with Elena is ambiguous. It stands for Eden's ambiguous relationship toward class, conventionality, maybe even toward life. She pledges her undying love, but wants Martin to let her father set him up in some kind of office job. Instead when he needs money he goes to the sea, or takes brutal work on a foundry, and he gets into fights. When he gets known, and turns into an ideologue, expounding the brutal Darwinian theories of Herbert Spenser, Elena rejects him. Eventually he seems also to reject himself - and when she comes back, he rejects her too.

There is something grand but flawed about Eden as played by Marinelli, grand and flawed also about this film. Pietro Marcello's boldness and freedom engage at first, even with the random found footage and the mixing of 1900's clothes and modern cars. Something grand and revolutionary seems afoot, as with Martin Eden himself: one can see how this filmmaker, with his glut of ideas and penchant for breaking genre barriers would like this class-hopping anti-hero who breaks all the rules and succeeds - till he crashes. Eden's half-cracked plunge into ideology seems cool for a while. It's something so rare in American movies.

Eden's transformation into a rich, spoiled, self-absorbed superstar author happens too fast, especially given how well the film has depicted some of the proletarian settings, Eden's naivete, his affection for the little family he lives with in the suburbs, his speaking of Neapolitan dialect whenever required. (As with Bellocchio's The Traitor, English subtitles fail to reveal the constant shifts from Italian to dialect to the Anglophone audience.) Suddenly Marinelli has bleached hair combed differently, he lives in a grand house, and he wears fussy collars and neckties. It doesn't really compute. Pietro Marcello's plunge into more conventional storytelling is promising but he might do better to pare down some of his avant-garde methods. This is a memorable if flawed experiment.

Martin Eden, 129 mins., debuted at Venice, where Marinelli won the Best Actor prize. It's in seven other listed festivals, including Toronto, New York, and London, and it was screened for this review as part of the NYFF (Oct. 7, 2019). Metascore 51% (which seems extreme; it's better than that).

See the Toronto Q&A with the director HERE.


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