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‘Martin Eden’ Review: Poetic Mastery and an Enigmatic Performance

Luca Marinelli brings the Jack London character new life over 100 years after the novel was published.
Martin Eden
By  · Published on September 25th, 2019

Few films can stand on the main character’s name as the title, but Martin Eden is such an enigmatic, enchanting human being that he belongs in the title of Pietro Marcello‘s latest film. Martin Eden presents a poor man hungry for knowledge, a story that will never be uninspiring, and adds romance and pure visual poetry to the mix. Adapted over 100 years after Jack London published his novel of the same name, the film brings the political story to a new audience, but not without its shortcomings.

Marcello’s Martin Eden finds the 1909 story in Naples, Italy, but the time period is hard to discern. Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli), a dynamic sailor, is introduced to a wealthy family and falls in love with the beautiful daughter Elena (Jessica Cressy). From there he decides to educate himself and become a published writer so that he will be worthy of being apart of Elena’s family. He begins writing about his lived experience, sad and angry poetry about what it is like living in the working class, but success is elusive. He gets taken under the wing of political journalist and socialist Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), becomes associated with the socialist movement, and sees Elena leave him when his politics upset her bougie family once and for all. Martin’s success as a poet rises, but he goes into a downward spiral just as quickly.

The commanding force of everything great in this film is Marinelli’s performance. He’s both charming and attractive, but he takes Martin from a likable character to an absolute joy to watch. He’s funny, witty, and full of sincerity in the pursuit of knowledge and of the woman he loves. He has the aura of the all-American good guy of Jimmy Stewart, especially in the scenes where he seems so out of place with Elena’s family. He has more panache and sensuality than Stewart, but the same adorable charm and readiness to slug someone in the face. His poetry recitations and outbursts about politics are positively music to the ears and not just because of the Italian language. The verbal rhythm he takes on when putting the beauty and solace of Martin’s life into words is enchanting.

Along with the poetry spoken in the dialogue, the images we see on screen are poetry in their own right. Between the bright, colorful images we see of Martin and his world are scenes of archival footage from different eras. They show poignant memories recalled in silence, and it’s an artistic choice that works well. At the beginning of the movie, a silent shot of an old ship floating in the ocean breaks up moments of Martin’s pursuit for knowledge. We see that same footage just as Martin gets his success and we watch the boat slowly sink into the waters below. The bulk of the film carries a color palette similar to Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray and fits with the same kind of romantic and lost protagonist in Martin Eden. The film as a whole is beautiful to look at and unique in its artistry of bringing archival old footage into an already gorgeous movie.

Where the movie falls short is when Martin begins to succeed in writing his short stories and furthering his relationship with Russ. Martin is a force of angst and rebellion, but he refuses to put that in the socialist party that Russ tries to introduce him to. Martin spews hatred for Elena’s family and their individualism, yet he has contempt for the unions and the existing organization of the socialist party in Naples. There is an egotistical element to Martin’s politics because of an unwillingness to associate with socialism. He wants to dismantle the elite, yet there is still a part of him that wants to be a part of them too. His writing provides sustainable documentation of the anger and hopelessness felt by the working class in his community, yet he provides no alternative to the socialist parties solutions. This makes it hard to follow him in his political monologues, no matter how well-spoken he may be.

There is so much electricity and emotion at the beginning of the film that when it drops off towards the end, it’s impossible not to notice. Martin becomes beaten down and jaded. He no longer longs for romance and with nothing to move toward, his scenes become droll and hard to watch. Without a dynamic ending with a clear message, it can be hard to appreciate all that came before it.

Still, Martin Eden is a movie worth seeing on the big screen as it’s both beautifully crafted and features wonderful performances. It will likely move you more than you’re expecting.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_