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Audrey Kupferberg: Martin Eden

Audrey Kupferberg

Martin Eden, is an artfully-conceived Italian film that was released by Kino Lorber in late 2020 and is available on various formats, including streaming.  It’s based on a 1909 novel by Jack London, directed by Pietro Marcello, and stars Luca Marinelli.  It was shot on location in Naples, but it’s difficult to take in the various pleasing and unsightly districts of that city when Marinelli is on the screen.  This actor is captivating.  His deep blue eyes, slicked dark hair, and powerful squared features dominate the many scenes in which Marcello shoots him in close-up. 

The story deals with a poor, ill-educated seaman -- who wants to become a successful influential author.  One day he saves the scion of a wealthy family from being beaten by a thug.  When the young man brings Martin home to meet his parents, that event changes his life.  There, he falls in love with Elena, the daughter of the family. She is a confusing character.  Should we think of her as lovely with a generous personality, or should we deem her so-so looking but well dressed, and somewhat snooty?  It’s perplexing.  She likes him but keeps cautionng that his lack of education makes success a tough road to travel. The film follows Martin through an intense, byzantine struggle from poverty and ignorance to autodidactic learning, political engagement in socialism and individualism, and then a form of success.

Throughout, I was left with a question of identifying the time period.  Manohla Dargis, in the New York Times, writes, “Marcello’s boldest conceptual move is to blur the story’s historical timeline, which he does through brilliant editing, a strategic use of archival footage and playing with the usual period cue.”  It certainly is a bold move, but I do not understand its motivation.  I do not understand the point a blurred timeline makes, if it makes any point at all.  It’s perplexing.  We see tinted and toned silent film footage.  We hear a couple characters mention that the war is coming.  Several of the women are wearing coats that my mother wore in the 1960s.  Many are dressed in full skirts from the 1950s.  There are cars from the 60s and 70s.  It seems such a gimmick to convey in a film that has so much inner strength, so much to say about character and philosophy. 

The last forty minutes of Martin Eden take us to uncharted territory.  We encounter an odd transformation in Martin.  He has lost his fine looks.  His hair is messed and heavily streaked with a blondish bleach.  His teeth are rotten.  Some of the personality of the earlier Martin has survived, but there is little or no narrative bridge from Martin’s previous experiences to his later life. Another perplexing detail….

The quality of the visuals in Martin Eden is spellbinding.  The lighting and camerawork deserve prizes.  Prizes should be awarded to Marcello and Marinelli.  In particular, Marinelli’s interpretation of Martin Eden is inspired.  In spite of the questions with which I am left about various aspects of the production, this film is one of the best motion pictures of 2020.

This is not the first film adaptation of Martin Eden.  In 1914, while Jack London was still alive, the Hobart Bosworth company produced Martin Eden, about a sailor who lacks education and wins fame and wealth as a writer.  The film stars Larry Peyton in the title role.  Peyton was a brawny, good-looking actor in silent films from 1913-1918.  He was killed in France in late 1918, a casualty of World War I.   An incomplete version of this film exists at the Library of Congress.  I’d love to see it!

In 1942, Glenn Ford and Claire Trevor co-starred in The Adventures of Martin Eden.  It was a minor film release from Columbia Pictures and is pretty much forgotten.

Jack London himself admitted that he botched the part of his 1909 novel that dealt with Martin’s attack on individualism.  London, who was a social activist, noted that no reviewer ever recognized that the title character DID reject the politics of individualism. 

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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