Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

Martin Eden is in UK cinemas from 9 July.

In transposing Jack London’s semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman Martin Eden from San Francisco and Oakland to Naples and its periphery, Pietro Marcello and his co-writer Maurizio Braucci were deceptively faithful to their source material. The Morse family, whose cultural sophistication and lofty social status bewitches the eponymous sailor, are now called Orsini, a name that belongs to one of Italy’s oldest aristocratic dynasties, and the ending has undergone some embroidering, with the finally successful Martin no longer an idealist whose life force has been extinguished, but a bitter and dissolute cynic lashing out at the world. Otherwise, the plot and most important characters remain largely untouched.

Rather, Marcello’s adaptation is an exercise in streamlining and condensation. Martin’s trajectory from wide-eyed proletarian to jaundiced celebrity is drawn in one fluid stroke, the struggles and successes of his dual pursuit of a writing career and Elena Orsini’s hand all integrated within the same inexorable motion. Edited with ravishing elegance by Aline Hervé and Fabrizio Federico, the fleet concatenation of clipped scenes is experienced as a flow that sweeps Martin along, almost more a passenger than an active agent in his own story.

The images are never less than gorgeous, but the delicate sentiment of the beginning, as when Martin visits the Orsini mansion and takes in all its splendour with childlike wonder, charming Elena through his exuberance and innocence of spirit, gradually dissipates in this forward rush. Luca Marinelli’s charismatic performance goes a long way towards counteracting this loss, though it unfortunately succumbs to caricature by film’s end, once Martin has been reduced to an archetype for the sake of allegory.

Marcello elaborates the story’s symbolic thrust through an ambiguous treatment of period. The initial impression that the film takes place, like the novel, towards the start of the last century is contradicted through subtle anachronisms, such as the too-modern lamp on Martin’s desk.

Luca Marinelli as Martin Eden and Denise Sardisco as Margherita in Martin Eden (2019)

Though there are numerous echoes of real historical developments, the chronology is equally jumbled. The kind of trade unionist debate that Martin is brought to by his mentor Russ Brissenden, where he takes the stage and inflames the crowd with his social Darwinist beliefs, is something that would have taken place prior to Fascism. But in the film’s coda, when Martin has achieved fame and lost his political convictions – following a time jump of a decade or two at most – his sponsoring of a left-wing terrorist group would seem to set the finale during the ‘Years of Lead’, from the 60s to the 80s.

Martin is thus presumably meant to represent the Italian 20th century, embodying the notion of upward mobility as a curse visited by the bourgeoisie upon the Italian proletariat – the ‘cultural genocide’ decried by Pasolini – but the forsaking of historical specificity has a universalising effect, diluting the impact of the film’s critique. Without genuine anchoring in reality, what is left after the narrative distillation described above is a rags to riches story, a cautionary tale about the corrupting power of wealth and success.

This is reinforced rather than offset by Marcello’s signature use of archival footage. As in his earlier experiments in hybrid storytelling, short clips interspersed throughout – a boy and girl dancing in the street, an illiterate man learning to write, a sailing ship sinking – serve as lyrical counterpoints to the narrative.

The images of shipbuilding and industrialisation in The Mouth of the Wolf (2009), or the news coverage of anti-Camorra demonstrations in Lost and Beautiful (2015), heightened the poignancy and relevance of the films’ fictionalisations by weaving them into the historical fabric of their respective settings.

In Martin Eden, Marcello’s first fully fledged fiction, much of the archival material is fake, shot in 16mm then tinted blue or yellow to resemble old footage. Marcello doesn’t try to pass it off as authentic – he would have been hard pressed to find a clip of a boy writing “Martin Eden” on a blackboard – but its inclusion only adds another layer that is pretty yet artificial to a film that could use more of the opposite.

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

Find out more and get a copy