‘Martin Eden’ Reimagines Jack London’s Classic Novel as an Enrapturing Italian Saga 

In “Martin Eden” a man pulls himself up the way many people have done throughout history, by self-education. But becoming cultured is not enough, what matters is what kind of culture you’re developing. This is a sweeping drama about a man who discovers words and ideas, but what he decides to take from them leads to tragedy. Director Pietro Marcello adapts Jack London’s 1909 novel into an Italian cinematic reverie, where personal drama and politics collide.

Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) is a working class Italian sailor with little formal education but a taste for traveling. He also has a natural intelligence awakened when he meets Elena Orsini (Jessica Cressy), a university student from a wealthy family. She encourages him to return to school, which is not easy for an adult without means. Instead, Martin begins consuming great books and discovers an urge to write. While finding his literary voice, Martin also has to brush away doubters in his family and the judgmental attitudes of Elena’s oligarchic clan. Like all writers throughout time, Martin soon experiences the sting of rejection, sending out short stories to magazines, hoping to get published. Martin expands his reading, consuming the social Darwinist ideas of Herbert Spencer, which also pits him against the radical socialist workers’ movement of the time, even as the dark shadow of fascism begins to take shape as well.

If you have never read Jack London’s novel it won’t matter in the least. Marcello transforms his vision of the story into first a rich tribute to a long tradition of Italian cinema. He shoots in film stock, giving the movie a dreamlike feel, as if it were an artifact from another era. Hand-held cinematography by Alessandro Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo has a vivid realism reminiscent of early Pier Paolo Pasolini films. It is both rugged and elegant, evoking 1930s Italy as a place where the wretched live just blocks away from the old European aristocracy. There is also an enrapturing rhythm to the editing. Martin may walk down a street or look out a train car, and Marcello will then cut to documentary footage from the period, as if the characters are looking back, straight into the past, and so are we. Marcello has mostly done documentaries. His passion for nonfiction is evident throughout, but now combined with a powerful eloquence. In the style of Italian films like “Il Postino,” it’s a celebration of both cinematic art and the power of words. 

But like the London novel, there are various layers to this story that Marcello explores with great craft. At first, Martin inspires a heroic empathy because he defines the autodidact. He wants to better himself to impress Elena, even when he’s told he should return to primary school he goes his own way, devouring literature and philosophy, building his mind into a potent intellect. Yet this doesn’t necessarily make him a hero, even as we cheer for him to get published and show the world his talent. Marcello, like London, also wants to explore the way once a person finds ideas they enter the arena of battling with them. Because he has pulled himself up, Martin is attracted to Spencer’s ideas about survival of the fittest and the iron philosophy of individualism. He scoffs at his friends who support the socialists, at dinner with Elena’s relatives he snickers at the hypocrisy of their liberal stances as they brush aside the poor. Through Martin’s evolution as a thinker, Marcello paints a portrait of Italy’s experience in the ideological battles of the early 20th century, which would eventually culminate in the inferno of World War II. London’s Eden was an emerging author in 1909 Oakland, Marcello’s character is closer to Italian writers like Gabriele D’Annunzio, who were forebears of fascism in their literature and poetry celebrating master races and the thrill of species at war. 

The casting and performances of “Martin Eden” have the feel of classic Italian neorealism, so vivid these could be real people pulled off the street or dining hall. Luca Marinelli’s evolution as Eden is complex and nuanced. He’s an underdog that builds himself into a big ego. Or maybe certain personality traits only come out when we develop newfound confidence. Some people’s humbleness gets buried when they finally taste success. But the early scenes find Marinelli shining as the emerging writer anyone who has ever tried to live off of their words will recognize. When he finally buys a typewriter it is as if the world is finally at his fingertips. The screenplay by Marcello and Maurizio Braucci crafts poems and short stories for Martin so well-written we wish they’d publish a companion volume.

A film like “Martin Eden” is a refreshing tonic in its tones, style and maturity. It is poetic and relatable, with people who feel true to life. Marcello is not just telling the story of a writer, but a story about ideas and how they can change us. There is a scene of Martin lounging by the sea, in the background Mussolini’s Black Shirts begin to roam. Ideas are not just words, they can come powerfully, and dangerously, to life.

Martin Eden” releases Oct. 16 on VOD and in select cities.