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This Sumptuous Retelling Of 'Martin Eden' Stays True To Jack London's Novel

After he meets Elena (Jessica Cressy), Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) becomes determined to rise above his lowly circumstances and prove himself worthy of her love.
Francesca Errichiello
Kino Lorber
After he meets Elena (Jessica Cressy), Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) becomes determined to rise above his lowly circumstances and prove himself worthy of her love.

Although it's not as widely known in the U.S. as his adventure tales like White Fang and The Call of the Wild, Martin Eden is now regarded as one of Jack London's greatest achievements. It's the most autobiographical of his novels — the rise-and-fall story of an uneducated sailor who falls in love and achieves fame as a writer, only to become deeply disillusioned by his own success. It's also an intensely political work, full of London's pessimistic ruminations on individualism, socialism and the eternal struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

All that might sound hard to digest, but the wonder of the new film version of Martin Eden is how fluid, vibrant and inventive it is. The story has been moved to Naples, in the Campania region of Italy, but where it's taking place is a lot clearer than when it's taking place. It's definitely the 20th century, but it's hard to be much more specific: The sets, props and costumes seem to span multiple decades.

Sometimes the movie evokes Italian neorealism, and sometimes it has the mad stylistic energy of the French New Wave. The director Pietro Marcello and his co-writer, Maurizio Braucci, may be courting confusion here, but their time-scrambling approach makes intuitive sense: Rather than crafting a static period piece, they're trying to show us that history is a living, ever-changing thing.

Nowhere is that dynamism more apparent than in the terrific lead performance of Luca Marinelli, who won the best actor prize at the Venice International Film Festival last year, and whom you might recognize from the recent Netflix thriller The Old Guard. Marinelli's Martin is every bit as handsome and strapping as London described him in the novel, a good-hearted, rough-mannered sailor strengthened by years of manual labor.

One morning, Martin helps a young man named Arturo fight off an attacker in the harbor, and is invited to meet Arturo's extremely wealthy family. Martin is stunned by the size of their house, which is overflowing with books, paintings and sculptures. And he's smitten with Arturo's exquisitely beautiful sister, Elena, played by Jessica Cressy, who introduces him to the work of Baudelaire and gently corrects his grammar. Martin becomes determined to educate himself, rise above his lowly circumstances and prove worthy of her love.

It's not easy for a movie to depict the acquisition of knowledge, but this one comes as close as any I've seen.

One of the most thrilling aspects of the novel is how well it dramatizes Martin's intellectual hunger, as he becomes a voracious reader and, in time, a writer. It's not easy for a movie to depict the acquisition of knowledge, but this one comes as close as any I've seen. We see Martin's growing confidence, whether he's arguing with Elena about a movie they've just watched or being taken under the wing of an aging socialist writer. But we also watch as Martin struggles to make ends meet and support his writing. All the while, he gets a steady stream of rejection letters from publishers, but once he has his first short story printed, he swiftly becomes a literary sensation.

But as Martin becomes famous, he also becomes increasingly bitter, as he realizes the hollowness of the cultural class that created him. He feels equally alienated from his working-class roots and from the wealthy elites whose tastes and manners he has learned to appropriate. Martin's handsome face becomes twisted with misanthropic rage; even his teeth begin to rot. He rejects everyone around him, and also himself, and the movie, like the novel, slides toward tragedy.

Over the years, Marcello has made a number of documentaries that poetically blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction. The blurring continues here. Martin's story, shot on luminous 16-millimeter film, is interspersed with archival footage from Italy from the early 1900s: We see faded images of workers in the streets, ships docking in the harbor and a country becoming rapidly industrialized.

Marcello is making a larger point about how society evolves over time, and how a single person's journey can never be separated from the overarching sweep of history. In that sense, he has stayed remarkably true to the spirit of the novel, which London wrote as a rejection of individualism, the pursuit of self-interest over all else. And yet there's no denying that this gorgeous and passionate film is simply one of a kind.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.