It opens like a fairy tale. A young sailor, strapping and uneducated, rescues a rich kid from a beating and is gratefully invited back to the lad’s palatial home. Entering a gracious paradise beyond his dreams, the sailor—whose name, Martin Eden, has intimations of lost innocence—is immediately smitten with the boy’s sister. Inspired by her example (she is a cultivated university student) and eventually her love, he becomes a voracious reader and aspiring writer. A paragon of tenacity, exhibiting superhuman willpower while enduring numerous setbacks, Martin eventually succeeds in reinventing himself as a successful author, but it is too late. Tired of the world’s shams, the hypocrisies of class, and the shallowness of the bourgeoisie, the sailor returns, quite literally, to the sea. That, in brief, is the plot of Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden—a movie that arrives like a bolt out of the blue, bursting with ideas, not unlike its hero.
It is adapted with considerable fidelity from Jack London’s semi-autobiographical novel of 1909. A two-fisted guy’s guy, a literary celebrity, and a radical socialist, Jack London (1876–1916) furnished a model for Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, and even George Orwell, not to mention long forgotten Depression-era radical writers like Michael Gold. These days, however, this “hack genius” (as E.L. Doctorow called him) is mainly associated with boyish adventure tales like The Call of the Wild and cuts an ungainly figure in American literature. In the novel The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates gives a hilarious account of London’s drunken, overbearing antics, as seen through the imagined eyes of fellow socialist Upton Sinclair:
Glowering-red with exuberance, [he] brought the audience to their feet chanting lines from “La Marseillaise”—in loud, mangled French incomprehensible to most, though to Upton, chilling in its robust brutality.
Robust brutality would be one way to describe London’s Martin Eden, which, at least since the demise of proletarian realism, is far from canonical in the English-speaking world. The book was made into a film in 1914 and again in 1942, the second time as The Adventures of Martin Eden, with Glenn Ford in the title role. London was then still a force to be reckoned with: The New York Times’s movie critic faulted the movie for not sustaining the writer’s “brawling excitement, his pungent directness.” In the late 1940s the labor historian Philip Foner declared that Martin Eden must “be counted among the great American novels,” and the African-American novelist-turned-filmmaker Oscar Micheaux gave the self-made hero of his final feature, The Betrayal (1948), the name Martin Eden. Few claims have been made for the novel since then, yet even so it was highly regarded elsewhere—Jorge Luis Borges, for one, called it “magnificent.”
Some thirty years ago, pondering the two volumes that the Library of America had accorded London, Doctorow marveled that “to this day he is the most widely read American writer in the world.” It may be that London gains in translation. As Edgar Allan Poe was for the French, so is Jack London for the Russians, and perhaps more so. Tolstoy had London’s books in his library; Gorky considered him America’s leading proletariat author. According to legend, Lenin on his deathbed had London’s stories read aloud to him. Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Bolshevik commissar for education, endorsed London’s work.
Sergei Eisenstein based his first dramatic work on a London short story; Lev Kuleshov’s strongest silent film, By the Law (1926), draws on London; and Leon Trotsky was only the most prominent of revolutionaries to praise The Iron Heel, London’s dystopian tale of oligarchy run amok: “Whatever may be the single ‘errors’ of the novel—and they exist—we cannot help inclining before the powerful intuition of the revolutionary artist.” Even Solzhenitsyn was a fan, making a pilgrimage to London’s Sonoma County ranch in 1976 to mark the centennial of the author’s birth.
In 1918, two years after London’s death, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote and starred in a “futuristic” version of Martin Eden, transposed from California to Moscow and titled Not for Money Born. As bizarre as this work may have been—it has been lost but apparently featured a painting of a ten-legged horse as a backdrop, and an ending that Viktor Shklovsky compared to an imaginary Chaplin film—it is unlikely to equal the profound idiosyncrasy of Marcello’s Martin Eden.
As Martin Eden was a self-taught writer, so Marcello might be considered a self-taught filmmaker. Now forty-four, he was born in Campania, in southern Italy. Trained as a painter, he taught art in a Neapolitan prison, then began making short video documentaries that often concerned social outcasts. His first feature, Il passaggio della linea (Crossing the Line, 2007), is a moody nocturnal documentary, shot entirely aboard a dozen trains, consisting mainly of interviews with itinerant laborers traveling from one end of Italy to another. La bocca del lupo (The Mouth of the Wolf, 2009), commissioned by a Jesuit organization devoted to Genoa’s homeless and framed by scenes of the city’s indigent cave-dwellers, is a gritty yet tender portrait of two middle-aged lovers—a convicted felon and a transsexual junkie—who met in prison. Marcello has called it “a nostalgic film” and “an archaeology of memory.” Interviews and reenacted scenes are punctuated with archival and amateur footage of Genoa, somewhat in the manner of the under-recognized Armenian experimental filmmaker Artavazd Peleshyan, an artist whom Marcello celebrated in another documentary, Il silenzio di Pelesjan (The Silence of Peleshyan, 2011).
None of these was shown in the US until Marcello’s unclassifiable breakthrough film Bella e perduta (Lost and Beautiful, 2015) turned up a few years ago at Lincoln Center. The movie is aggressively one of a kind: an enigmatic fable fusing an animist vision of rural Italy with a sort of cinema verité commedia dell’arte. A roguish, masked Pulcinella is recruited from the afterlife to shepherd an orphaned water buffalo calf to a new owner, and the calf, not the Pulcinella, provides intermittent voiceover narration. (Evidently, Marcello had begun the film as a portrait of a shepherd in his home region, Campania, who’d become the volunteer caretaker of a vacant eighteenth-century palazzo. When his subject died during filming, Marcello refashioned his existing footage.)
While seeming to follow the structure of a conventional movie, Marcello’s Martin Eden is scarcely less eccentric than his earlier work. It begins with Martin (Luca Marinelli), successful and alone, recording his credo on a reel-to-reel tape machine:
The world is stronger than me. Against its power I have nothing but myself…. I am also a force. And my force is fearsome as long as I have the power of my words to counter that of the world.
This flash-forward prelude ensures that Martin’s presumed power will hang over the rest of the movie. A burst of ancient newsreel footage in which the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta is seen agitating a crowd and a bit of peppy pop music set the stage for sailor Martin to perform his gallant deed and gain entrance to the magic kingdom of bourgeois respectability.
“This was the best day of my life,” Martin tells Elena (Jessica Cressy), the rich boy’s sister, who graciously lends him some books and, obviously intrigued, seems prepared to adopt the amiable roughneck as a sort of protégé. Martin wants something more, not sex but bourgeois confidence: “I want to be like you, think like you.” He writes to Elena from his ship and, upon returning to Naples, struggles to cement their relationship and forge a new identity.
His aspirations are painful. In one scene, Margherita (Denise Sardisco), a young working-class woman Martin hooked up with early in the film, resurfaces, not for the last time, as his bad conscience, a waitress delivering drinks to Martin, Elena, and her brother. For Italian audiences, the gap is made evident through language: Cressy, who is French, speaks cultivated Italian while Sardisco, born in Sicily, uses dialect. With Elena’s encouragement Martin attempts to re-enroll in school and suffers a humiliating rejection. Undeterred, he obtains a second-hand Olivetti manual typewriter from a pawnshop and begins to knock out poems and stories that draw on his adventurous past.
As the inner-directed, alarmingly self-confident Martin, Marinelli is an exaggerated presence—a robust guy distinguished by his regal nose, fleshy mouth, and wild blue eyes. The actor, who won a prize for his performance at the Venice Film Festival, is barely contained by the frame; he combines the intensity (and engaging smirk) of the young Robert De Niro with the rangy athleticism of mid-1960s Jean-Paul Belmondo. Marcello, partial to close-ups and abrupt, slightly nervous camera moves, feasts on Marinelli’s outsized features. He is, to borrow the title of one early biography of Benito Mussolini, a Man of Destiny. (The book was published in 1928, around the time that London’s Martin Eden, hitherto admired, was banned by the fascist authorities.)
Martin’s struggle as a writer is exacerbated by Elena’s anxiety, particularly after they become engaged (much to her parents’ displeasure). As she once pushed Martin to get an education, Elena now pressures him to go into business—to, in effect, become the protagonist of a Horatio Alger novel rather than one by Jack London. Her parents host a garden party to provide Martin with helpful connections. He is unimpressed by one self-made accountant: presented with a business card, he tosses it away.
Rather than accept advice from a working-class striver, he falls in with a well-off middle-aged bohemian and unpublished poet, Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi, a veteran of the Living Theater). Brissenden recognizes Martin’s talent and takes him to a very 1920s opium den, after which they explore the back alleys of Naples. Here Marcello cuts to another sort of opium den—a silent movie attended by Martin and Elena. She’s enchanted, he’s bored, a response that leads to their first real argument and her reiterated demand that he give up writing because, given his subject matter, he’ll never make any money at it. Out of spite he takes her for a walk on the wild side, showing her streets teeming with whores, pimps, urchins, and random Neapolitan vitality: “Why should I feel ashamed writing about this?”
After endless rejections and a bout of illness, Martin finally sells a story and unexpectedly gets a 200,000-lira windfall. “They’re throwing the dog a bone,” Brissenden jeers. A cynic who believes that socialism is inevitable (“the slaves have now become too many…anything is preferable to those pigs that govern now”), Brissenden perversely encourages Martin’s militance, pushing him onto the speakers’ platform during a strike. True to his individualistic code, Martin defends the strike but attacks the union. Nevertheless, a reporter takes him for a socialist firebrand and writes him up in a popular newspaper. Thus the neighborhood grocer shuns Martin, while Elena beats a hasty retreat back into her class privilege. Martin’s last encounter with her family is a comic disaster. After they blame him for the strike, enlisting their servants to back them up, he launches into a rant (“the world belongs to the great individuals”) and informs them that, in their craven way, they are the socialists.
Readers of London’s novel have been confounded by this political exchange, which exposes a significant inconsistency in the author’s thinking. Like his creator, Martin is a follower of Herbert Spencer—the once enormously popular Victorian system-builder who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and, among other things, was an avatar of libertarianism. Herein lies the contradiction. As a proudly class-conscious proletarian, Martin is naturally supportive of worker strikes. But, as a self-made superman, he is innately hostile to unions, which are dedicated to the collective rather than the individual. (As a practical anarchist, Malatesta—shown in the film’s introductory newsreel and often cited by Marcello in interviews—was opposed to excessive individualism and open to working with unions, and thus something of an anti–Martin Eden.)
London maintained that his novel was meant to be a critique of Martin’s extreme individualism, but anyone reading it might take it for a tragic celebration. The world is unalterably opposed to the man who does not know his place. Martin’s opening declaration—“my force is fearsome as long as I have the power of my words to counter that of the world”—is an empty boast. He is lost once he leaves the working class.
For all its muscular filmmaking, Martin Eden is most striking for its temporal blur and subtle anachronisms. As in Marcello’s documentaries, a straightforward narrative is complicated, fragmented, and enriched by snatches of pop music and interpolated archival footage. There are also faux home movies meant to suggest Martin’s childhood, including a recurring image of him as a boy, energetically dancing with his jitterbugging older sister.
The time frame is as elusive as the politics of its protagonist. The action is framed by newsreel shots from the early twentieth century. The opening image of a reel-to-reel tape recorder, the subsequent deployment of black-and-white TV, the cars, the typewriter, and Martin’s clothes suggest the 1950s or 1960s, while, in its fashions, furnishings, and attitude, Elena’s world might be that of the 1920s or even the late nineteenth century. (It seems significant that the poet to whom she first introduces Martin is Charles Baudelaire.) Martin and Elena not only represent different classes; they seem to live in different epochs.
“There is no flow of time,” as Siegfried Kracauer wrote of Proust’s chronology, but rather “a discontinuous, non-causal succession of situations, or worlds, or periods.” So it is, almost subliminally, in Martin Eden: the movie’s production design oscillates between the neorealist 1950s and the airbrushed period glamour of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist. (Marcello has compared his method to that of Peter Watkins’s 2000 film La Commune (Paris 1871), which inserted TV news reporting into a late-nineteenth-century setting.)
Martin Eden’s last half-hour is closer to the present day, although, with her newly marcelled hair, Elena now seems to be an elegant woman of the 1920s. As demonstrated by the tirade Martin dictates to his assistant, his writing has made him rich, reckless, and splenetic. He has become a spoiled dandy in a white suit, a celebrity. As Antonio Gramsci wrote of the protofascist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio (who is referenced in the novel), Martin “play-acts to himself in front of the mirror.” His teeth, like Jack London’s, have gone rotten. His rebellion, as Brissenden predicted, has been commodified by the culture industry. His humor is cynical; a contract is “the only literature capitalists respect,” he tells his smooth-talking publisher. Uprooted and transplanted, the robust working-class hero is an existential nihilist—a secondary character in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita or Antonioni’s L’Eclisse. A press conference meant to launch his new book and subsequent American tour is the occasion for yet another misanthropic tirade. His handlers roll their eyes. Elena resurfaces to receive a spiteful kiss-off: “If no one had noticed my books, you would have stayed away.”
Unmoored in time, Martin’s rise and fall has a mythic feel. (Marcello, who has described London’s novel as “a fresco that foresaw the twentieth century’s perversions and torments,” told one interviewer that he considered the title character an archetype like Faust or Hamlet—although reimagined in his version not as an American but “a child of the Mediterranean.”) The movie that began with its end, as successful, tormented Martin commits his thoughts to a tape recorder, ends by doubling back to the beginning, with Martin returning to the Naples harbor from which he emerged. He is walking into the past—or is it the future? A parodic shadow of himself, Martin is one specter among many. We see him ungraciously deliver a wad of cash to a revolutionary he meets at the edge of the city, a transaction jarringly followed by archival images of a Nazi book burning. The impending war hinted at in previous scenes has apparently broken out, or maybe it has come home. Some African migrants are grouped on the beach. A handful of soldiers are there as well. A derelict wall is marked with the graffito, “No to the Massacre of the People.” An orange sun is setting over the sea, and the mood is mildly Fellini-esque, at once festive and mournful.
War and fascism are the structuring absences in Marcello’s fluid historical panorama. Or rather they are unacknowledged forces that can be felt everywhere roiling beneath the surface. Malatesta regarded Mussolini—who, then a socialist, supported the 1914 general strike—as a sham. The turmoil of the movie’s final scenes also evoke the 1915 pro-war counterdemonstrations, which were supported by D’Annunzio and the antibourgeois Futurists, as well as the opportunistic demagogue Mussolini—ghosts that haunt Italy still. In that sense, Marcello’s Martin Eden suggests a return of the repressed. Swallowed by the Mediterranean, his Man of Destiny is too big for Italy and too small for the world.