Director Pietro Marcello’s adaptation of Jack London’s novel, Martin Eden, is a kitchen sink affair. He has thrown everything into this film. There are homages to Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc in the first act, animated sequences to serve as editorial markers and multiple shocking time jumps that completely metamorphose the film’s narrative line. But here’s the thing: even though Martin Eden has everything but the kitchen sink tossed into it, it’s not anything special. Hell, it is only the third best period piece film premiering in 2019 that features a woman making an artistic rendition of her love interest (though there is no shame in finishing behind Little Women and Portrait of a Lady on Fire).

Martin Eden follows the unlikely, eventually meteoric rise of the titular Eden (Luca Marinelli) from carefree, half-literate Neapolitan merchant mariner to world-famous writer. Eden’s literary epiphany came after he met Elena Orsini (Jessica Cressy), the sister of a boy he saved from an over-vigorous dockyard security guard. The Orsinis are among the well-to-do elite of Naples high society and Eden cannot help but fall in love with Elena. Of course, the woman has no reason to be drawn to some no-name sailor, but the two make a connection over a book in the Orsini library. Eden, smitten, totes his souvenir book home; eventually, he decides to read it. He is hooked. He becomes a voracious reader, of everything he can find. The opening act of Martin Eden is a beautiful depiction of the protagonist’s desperate headlong plunge into auto-didacticism and something of an ode to bookworms everywhere.

From here, the plot gets much more convoluted and with its loss of focus comes a loss of the energetic verve that had driven it this far. Eden becomes engaged, sort of, to Elena, and he begins to formally pursue a career as a writer. He also becomes vaguely entangled with left-wing politics in Naples and gets involved with fringe journalists covering the working class struggle. Martin Eden grinds down in this over-laden middle section. Too many of the film’s pretensions smash together here, making the film a slog. Among these pretensions is the deliberate lack of period specificity: the film could be set in Naples anytime between the 1930s and the 1970s and Marcello’s apparently-playful refusal to pin his film to a specific year makes the inclusion of the worker’s movement a real mess. There is a way to make a shocking, enjoyable film while playing around with history like this; Christian Petzold’s incredible Transit did something very similar to what Marcello is attempting to do here with immense emotional and political effect. But Martin Eden is no Transit and instead becomes tiresomely vacuous time-travelling for no discernible reason other than for the director to seem clever.

Eden himself becomes a genuine asshole in this section of the film as well. He parades around as if he just won three consecutive Nobel Prizes for Literature, parrots the batshit-crazy, incoherent theories of Herbert Spencer and systematically destroys all of his relationships and career opportunities. Basically, if the first act was something like a re-make of a De Sica film, the second act is more like diet Antonioni, but with a protagonist every viewer will loathe. If this is not enough to induce a cringe, the third act climax is staged with a truly shocking cut to years ahead into the future, but then more or less instantly devolves into a much less subdued restaging of Gus van Sant’s Last Days, crossed with all of the annoying parts of Barry Lyndon.

By the time the film finally ends, most viewers will likely wonder why Marcello made the various, usually head-scratching artistic choices that he makes throughout. There is the stuff of a resonant, profound adult coming-of-age love story here, but for some reason it was tossed into a blender with far too many ham-fisted grasps of art cinema and a half-dozen master works of cinema and then poured out incoherently for most of Martin Eden’s baffling two-plus hour runtime. It is undeniable that the directorial imprint is plain to any viewer, but it is just as inarguable that that is not a good thing.

Summary
By the time the film finally ends, most viewers will likely wonder why Marcello made the various, usually head-scratching artistic choices that he makes throughout.
42 %
Fussy and Over-cooked
  • Hearts and Bones

    Fortunately, someone somewhere is still funding these uplifting tales of the goodness of o…
  • Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams

    As a portrait of Japanese society, the film takes viewers into the seemingly crazy local c…
  • Dreamland

    Dreamland, whose script could charitably be considered “underwhelming,” is not a film that…
  • Oeuvre: David Cronenberg: Videodrome

    Videodrome’s brilliance comes from literalizing the unseen culture war waging at all times…
  • 76 Days

    A film about heroes whose faces we hardly see, battling an enemy even they can’t see, with…
  • Hillbilly Elegy

    An absurd mish-mash of thematic contradictions, terrible dialogue and overblown acting, th…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Hearts and Bones

Fortunately, someone somewhere is still funding these uplifting tales of the goodness of o…