There is a timeless quality to "Martin Eden," a film shot and produced in modern times but with a look and feel as if it might have been made several decades ago. The young actor at its center, Luca Marinelli, gives an amazing, lived-in performance that deserves all the praise it's been getting...its no wonder that Marinelli won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival, and that his name might be one that Americans will need to learn come Oscar season.
Based on the 1909 novel of the same name by author Jack London, director Pietro Marcello and screenwriter Maurizio Braucci make significant changes from the source material to make it their own. For starters, the original "Martin Eden" took place in California, and here the story is set mostly near Naples, Italy. Shot in grainy 16mm, their film invokes a cozy sense of cinematic nostalgia, with a romance and characters that are universally relatable, reaching far beyond any language barriers that may exist (some nuances of "Martin Eden" are literally lost in translation, as certain regional dialects that tell a story of class and struggle do not properly come through).
Martin Eden (Marinelli) is strikingly handsome and charming, his frame large and towering. He also is a dirt-poor sailor, who had never even finished basic schooling. When he comes to the rescue of a young man being bullied by the docks, the man invites Martin back to his home for supper. That's where he meets the man's sister, Elena (Jessica Cressy), and they fall in love, a deep romantic love that feels destined, or perhaps cursed.
Coming from an affluent family, Elena loves Martin but cannot be with him due to social and economic pressures that exist, pressures mainly coming down on her from her family. Martin's love of Elena inspires him to become a writer, against all odds, being that he was never properly educated. Elena lends him books and supports his endeavors, knowing that if he were to ever "make it" as a writer, her dreams of being with him would come true. But as one manuscript after another is rejected, their relationship becomes more and more strained.
The character arch of Martin Eden is fascinating and tragic all at once, filmed with impeccable consideration for symbolism and deeper meaning. This tall, handsome man transforms before our eyes, but what he is seeking may not be what he needs after all. As the film progresses, he grows uglier - both physically and internally - and this hulking man now feels small in the frame. Director Marcello makes some bold, stylized choices to inter-cut actual archived footage that doesn't quite make sense, unless viewed from a thematic point-of-view. It somehow works.
Best of all though, is the performance by Luca Marinelli. Performances such as his are a rare thing, and so much of the movie works only because of his sheer talent to convey and inhabit the emotions of the man he's playing. He is Martin Eden. More than that, he is the beating heart of the movie and in lesser hands, the movie itself would not be nearly as effective.
There are some larger, perhaps more weightier things going on in the film as well, with Eden crossing paths with a socialist movement juxtaposed with his own individualistic beliefs. "Martin Eden" may take place in an unnamed time period in the 20th century, but it is a lovely, wholly satisfying film...the sort of transcendent, passionate film that will remind you of what made you fall in love with the movies in the first place.
Genre: Drama, Romance, Foreign.
Run Time: 2 hours 9 minutes.
Starring: Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Denise Sardisco, Carlo Cecchi.
Based on the Jack London novel.
Directed by Pietro Marcello ("Lost and Beautiful").
"Martin Eden" is now available at select Virtual Cinemas and on VOD.
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