Available as a virtual screening via the Coolidge Corner Theatre, “Martin Eden” is old-school cinematic soul food — a sweepingly stylish and smart Italian coming-of-age drama that feels as if it could have been made 60 years ago, during the heyday of Visconti. Oddly enough, it’s based on a 1909 novel by the American writer Jack London, adapted and updated by director Pietro Marcello with co-writer Maurizio Braucci into a simmering tale of a young man’s hopes and disenchantments. The yearning to transform oneself, it turns out, is universal.
One thing London and Marcello share is an acute awareness of class boundaries and the difficulties of overcoming them. The young hero of the title, played by the wolfishly handsome Luca Marinelli, is a sailor and foundry worker from a poor section of Naples; he’s unself-consciously content in his proletarian lot until he meets Elena (Jessica Cressy), a student and the daughter of a literate, liberal member of the bourgeoisie. Smitten equally with her beauty and her world, Martin vows to educate himself into being worthy and sets out to become a writer.
The novel, written by London during a rocky Pacific crossing, was in part autobiographical and in part a portrait of a more feckless, less political artist than he himself was. While Naples erupts around him in socialist strikes and fierce reprisals, Martin is doing it all for love, and he sees his belief in the primacy of the individual as his only way out of the lower depths. To London’s frustration, many readers found that commendable, and the movie version of “Martin Eden” keeps us suspended close to its hero while we figure out our own feelings on the matter. Can a man lose his soul by staying artistically pure?
Ironically, Marcello and his crew make this dilemma a pleasure to the senses. The 16mm cinematography by Alessandro Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo has a warm graininess that lends a timeless air to the visuals, whether in the alleys and drawing rooms of Naples or the fields of Campania, where Martin goes to work on his short stories and befriends a seamstress (Carmen Pommella) and her children. The exact period we’re in is kept hazy through a score that toggles between Bach and Europop and through the regular irruption of archival B&W footage from newsreels and Neo-Realist films — hints of the crowd from which Martin is desperate to escape.
As in many Bildungsromans, the characters swirling around the half-formed hero almost steal the show. This includes Carlo Cecchi as Russ Brissenden, an aging writer and committed Socialist who becomes Martin’s mentor, and Elisabetta Valgoi as Elena’s sharp-eyed mother. Less developed are the characters of Margherita (Denise Sardisco), a waitress who loves Martin even as he chases after respectability, and to a lesser extent Elena, who Cressy invests with an angelic simplicity that comes to seem cowardly over the long haul.
Marinelli is still magnetic enough to hold the center — he won the top acting prize at the 2019 Venice Film Festival — and to suggest both the nobility and naivete in Martin. And when the film jumps unexpectedly ahead to the hero’s peak of fame, when the public has come around to his bleak tales of poverty and treats him as a superstar, the actor conveys a startling spiritual emptiness that in some ways is worse than death. The tragedy of this grand and artful movie is that the individuality Martin craves to make him stand out leaves him in the end standing very much alone.
Directed by Pietro Marcello. Written by Marcello and Maurizio Braucci, based on the novel by Jack London. Starring Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy. Available for virtual screening at coolidge.org. In Italian, with subtitles. 129 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: youthful agonies).