Adapted from the 1909 American novel by Jack London — about a young man whose desire to write and his class repeatedly are at odds with each other — director Pietro Marcello transports the titular novel’s original Oakland setting to 20th century Naples. While this in itself is enough of a risk, Marcello goes further by setting Martin Eden in a version of the 20th century that is never fully pinned down to a recognisable decade. This decision thankfully elevates this swooning story of ambition, class divides and romance into something wholly beautiful.
Luca Marinelli plays Martin, a working-class man who lives with his sister and her family in a small flat in Naples, scraping out a living by taking occasional job on fishing boats. When a chance encounter leads to him meeting the Orsinis — a wealthy, middle-class and “cultured” family — he has a new aspiration: to become a writer, and to marry Elena Orsini (Jessica Cressy).
These dreams however, are not so easily achieved in a world where the odds are stacked against him — Martin only has a primary school level education, something that is pointedly referenced by the two intake clerks at a local institute when he tries to gain entry, and despite his attempts to ingest the culture that the bourgeoisie Orsini’s surround themselves in, he is always on the outskirts. Asking Elena to give him two years to make it as a writer, he moves to the outskirts of the city and pours his soul into getting published.
Rather than presenting the audience with a standard period romance with sweeping string scores and aestheticised poverty, Marcello leans into the source novel’s timeless theme of self-improvement and socio-economic barriers and fully embraces this sense of ambiguity. Archival footage, blurred at the edges and stilting between frames, both sets and disorientates the setting: it is hard to know exactly where in the 20th century you stand when the footage cuts between tall sail sinking slowly beneath the waves and a pair of teenagers dancing in jeans and puffa jackets. Rather than cementing the disparity between these images, Martin Eden‘s main narrative is seamlessly woven into this: shot on film and seeped in a 70s-style colour palette that accentuates the bright blues and coral oranges it simply becomes another part of this undefinable visual.
As disconcerting as this may sound, it is hard not to get swept away by the film; bobbing gently on this wave of historically-vague, unique narrative that reveals in its anachronistic nature. The film’s charm is also thanks to a powerfully open and occasionally vulnerable performance by Marinelli, who inhibits the character of a man who refuses to let the situation of his birth stop him from achieving his dreams while also grappling with what this cross-social movement means to both him and those he aims to join.
When Elena chastises him for his writing, stating that it is “too raw” and that he should instead be offering the working classes “hope” rather than simply talking about their situation he retorts, asking “why [he] should be ashamed of writing about this?”. He acknowledges the vast differences between them but naively believes that he will be able to bridge this gap by his sheer force of will – and in part, the audience believes this too — Marinelli’s earnest gaze is hard not to dismiss,
Martin could very easily be the ‘angry young man’ that populated British writing post-World War Two when the emergence of a socialist Labour government aimed to give opportunities for those left behind, but struggled with a generation of young working class men who were already trapped by their circumstances. Instead he “rises above his station” but finds himself facing a different set of obstacles as he becomes known for his political, urgent writing that delights the bourgeoisie audiences.
While still a “period drama”, the daring and interesting visual and narrative style of Martin Eden proves Marcello’s skills in weaving a tale that subverts expectation while also paying homage to cinematic movements past. It is hard not to get caught up in this melancholic and beautiful love story.
Martin Eden is available in select US cinemas now
by Rose Dymock