It’s an inevitable tragedy that whatever comes up must, by the sheer force of gravity, fall. When I saw Martin Eden last year (oh, my lost review!) and then recently, I couldn’t keep noticing how its (anti)hero, the eponymous Martin, bears an uncanny resemblance to the quintessential self-made Superman. Full of hubris, arrogance to a level that has to be experienced during the film’s two-hour running time, Martin is a trap encapsulated by the statuesque Luca Marinelli.
An unformed man who engages in simple pleasures, the life of an everyman, a seaman who beds loose women when he can, Martin has a brush with fate when he encounters a young boy getting beaten by a thug on the waterfront. Martin is only too eager to intercede — and this is something he will do again in the movie. What he ignores is that the boy happens to be the son of a wealthy man and brother to Elena Orsini (Jessica Cressey). When he meets Elena, a remote, Gallic beauty who shares with him the spark of knowledge through Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, he finds his Purpose.
From here onwards, Martin Eden the movie takes off with Martin’s own journey of self-mastery. Pietro Marcello dives us as deep as he can into Martin’s quest. In his vision of Jack London’s novel, we see Martin evolve from simple peasant to cultured uber-mensch. Sequences upon sequences picture Martin composing feverish passages he attempts to sell as fiction, only to be rejected over and over. His story becomes the quintessential writer’s worst nightmare and ultimate challenge in one package.
In the interim, Martin courts Elena, who the movie portrays as equal parts aloof and pliable. Her parents, of course, disapprove. Martin, aware of this, barrels through, determined to become one of them, an equal among equals. He rejects his more humble friends, and as his ego grows, so does his ambition.
It is when he makes the acquaintance of Russ Brisenden (Carlo Cecchi) that Martin moves from simply being a somewhat successful writer to a polarizing figure. Thrust into the spotlight of leftist politics, Martin becomes less the iconic figure of new literature and moves into a volatile character, a voice that ultimately, becomes lost in its own sermons. Brisenden, crucial to transforming Martin from simple writer to deep thinker, exits the picture after a few scenes, leaving Martin completely desolate and unable to relate to anyone outside his own (now deeply fertile) mind.
Martin Eden is a lush, often beautiful picture that transports you to an unspecified time in the Naples of yore. You easily move through decades as if Martin had existed in his own universe. One scene transpires through what seems to be the turn of the 20th century; the next deftly brings us to the 1970s disco period, and others still seem to transpire in the now, with the appearance of cell phones and modern technology (used to a bare minimum). Stitched through the narrative, Marcello inserts images of unknown documentaries and historical footage to great effect. An image of a sinking boat setting sail, then sinking, occurs throughout; elsewhere, a scene of a boy and a girl perpetually dancing to late 70s disco is less clear but seems to convey nostalgia and the loss of young love.
Anchored through the entire movie is Luca Marinelli’s riveting performance as Martin Eden, itself a character that seems to reflect Jack London at his most despairing. Marinelli, with his chiseled look, deep-set eyes, and commanding presence, starts unformed, peaks midway, even donning frosted hair at one point, and has one of the most heartbreaking exits I’ve seen in a long time. His performance seems to telegraph the dangers of succumbing to hubris and arrogance, of flying too high and untethered. Narcissism of this kind offers only glitter and no true rewards, a thing Martin learns only too late when it’s all over. The end results, often end in pain, loss, and the tragedy of a fire diminished by its own flames.