Jack London is one of those writers who lost their place in the pantheon of greats at home but remains a major early 20th-century author in Europe. Though best known in the States for his wilderness novels, London’s key novel is “Martin Eden,” a semi-autobiographical work tracing his background from unschooled sailor to celebrated writer, encompassing all his class anger, political musings and intense dissatisfaction with the life he created. It was made into a forgotten 1942 film starring Glenn Ford and then adapted for TV in the 1970s by the Germans, the French and even the Soviets, all of whom undoubtedly tempered London’s entrenched libertarianism to suit their purposes. Now Pietro Marcello (“The Mouth of the Wolf”) has made it the subject of his sprawling first full-fiction film, sticking close to the narrative while setting it in an undefinable 20th-century moment to make his own statements about the creative process, class hypocrisy and the disappointment of most political theories.
The outcome is an unwieldy intellectual sprawl whose incontestable visual pleasures (much like Marcello’s “Lost and Beautiful”) distract from the shallow characterizations, all of which are representatives of varying theories rather than people of independent thought and disposition. By shooting on 16mm, with a good deal of superb color grading, Marcello creates a malleable template that allows for often seamless insertions of archival footage designed to underline the vulnerable yet eternal position of the everyman within competing discourses of the last century (not to mention the present one). While the resulting mise-en-scène feels like a distinctive blend of recognizable techniques, with Marcello copying French New Wave and 1970s independent American cinema, as well as classic Italian movies of that era in a bid to come up with his own detectable style, the overarching impression is of a film too much in thrall to theory.
Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli, “They Call Me Jeeg”) is a handsome, thick-featured sailor who rescues young Neapolitan aristocrat Arturo Orsini (Giustiniano Alpi) from a dockside beating. As thanks, Arturo brings him home to the family villa, where the sneer on the face of housekeeper Carmela (Anna Patierno) over-signals the inevitable social clash to come. Martin takes one look at Arturo’s sister Elena (Jessica Cressy), with her closed collar and prim bow tied high around her neck, and he falls hard. She introduces him to Baudelaire, and he decides he needs an education and quick, because he’s discovered new worlds in books and wants to be a writer himself. Elena encourages the education part, saying he’ll never become a writer without a degree, but he’s humiliated in an interview and decides to press on composing stories despite continuous rejections from all the literary magazines.
Kicked out of the house by his stereotypically working-class brother-in-law Bernardo (Marco Leonardi), Martin meets kind widow Maria (Carmen Pommella, a stand-out and the most real character here), who gives him a room and the space to keep writing, which has now became a mania. Meanwhile, he’s discovered the political philosophy of Herbert Spencer, which informs his stories and his understanding of the flawed nature of a socialism that subsumes the individual within a collective. Following a party at the Orsinis, he meets tubercular poet-philosopher Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi) who further strengthens his Spencerian convictions and unlike Elena, doesn’t criticize the downbeat nature of his stories.
Shortly after Martin finally earns money from his writings, the film shifts into a new act, signaled by a commedia dell’arte duel which has more to do with Marcello’s previous film “Lost and Beautiful” than it does with Jack London. The now successful author has changed both physically — longer, lighter hair, pale tailored suits — and emotionally. Lionized yet misunderstood, Martin coopts the trappings of the upper classes while disdaining their entrenched entitlement. Aggressive and prone to indulgent outbursts that cow his long-suffering girlfriend Margherita (Denise Sardisco, charming yet barely given anything to work with), he’s become the model of a distinctly European macho intellectual, loudly spouting his libertarian theories on social evolution and the individual in a showboating manner meant to beat down less assertive souls. The irony, naturally, is that he’s drowning in existential despair, though the script fails to delve deep enough into his fatal angst.
At the end of the day, Martin Eden is a man of brutish origins who rises above his station through self-education, yet finds the adulation of the masses to be devoid of meaning: His insistence on the worth of the individual is mere theory since he disdains everyone around him, egotistically lashing out at the world for something lacking in himself. His aggression, even at the start, diminishes his charm, and no amount of self-education can correct the flaws in his personality. Despite the fact that London was holding up a mirror to himself, he was aware of Martin’s unpleasant qualities and was critical of the character’s revolt against socialism. One suspects the same is true of Marcello, though his film lacks a critique of Eden’s Spencerian insistence on the evolutionary superiority of the individual over the collective. Instead, seized by the novel’s theoretical underpinnings, he’s created a movie equally beguiled by political philosophy and cinema without getting them to work with each other for a common cause.
Where he succeeds brilliantly is in certain compositions, especially those mimicking a 1970s aesthetic with blue and red period tonalities that match so perfectly with some of the found footage that at times it’s difficult to tell them apart. He also incorporates silent-era clips as well as colorized footage of workers in Naples, making an amalgam of eras in what appears designed to insist on the humanity of all. The costume and art departments further jumble time periods, clothing the Orsini family and their milieu in “Great Gatsby” fashions, and creating a nightclub that looks like a 1910s Parisian brothel complete with a bad Loïe Fuller imitator. Even the choice of music, from bubbly French tunes to Debussy, contributes to the sense of Martin living in a notional time (the place is always Naples). This mix of epoch and form — handheld closeups followed by a more formal cinematic language yet largely beholden to a New Wave aesthetic — offers much to admire even when it tips into indulgence; in the end though, the film suffers from Eden’s own weighty intellectual pretensions, railing against society without finding the means to articulate the argument.