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Martin Eden review – dizzying and dreamlike trip through 20th century Italy

Pietro Marcello’s ambitious film of Jack London's novel rests on the shoulders of an inscrutable performance from Luca Marinelli

Adapted from Jack London’s 1909 novel of the same name, with action transplanted from early 20th century San Francisco to Naples, director Pietro Marcello’s take on Martin Eden is unabashedly ambitious and yet steadfastly focused. Taking place in an anachronistic, unspecified 20th century Italy (one scene will look like 1909, the next has characters watching TV), with archival silent footage appearing throughout, the film is keenly attuned to the emotional effects of history’s sweep, gently bending time and memory to its will. Certainly there’s something of Christian Petzold’s Transit here, with its similarly dreamlike, ahistorical vision of Marseille beset by an increasingly oppressive government.

The plot broadly follows Luca Marinelli’s eponymous character, initially an uneducated sailor, as he strives to become a successful author and win the love of the aristocratic Elena Orsini (Jessica Cressy). As will be familiar to any readers of the novel, much attention is given to Eden’s intellectual development, as he rejects the socialism of his fellow dock workers and takes to a kind of Nietzschean individualism. But as his books sell more and more, his inner being gradually becomes ravaged and empty, his lack of philosophical clarity opening him up to attachment and appropriation by ever-more malicious forces – the film’s last act depicts an increasingly fascistic and war-like Italy. And yet, the timeframe could still equally be the Italy of Benito Mussolini or Matteo Salvini.

Martin Eden is frequently stylistically audacious; the cuts away to archival footage give it an essayistic edge, whereas frequent direct addresses to camera in dialogue scenes have the effect of placing the viewer in the middle of history, with the fourth wall crumbling gently away. The cinematography by Francesco di Giacomo and Alessandro Abate finds eye-popping, bright shards of light in outdoor scenes. But instead of impressionistic reverie, there remains a sense of distance, chiefly provided by Luca Marinelli’s performance.

The title character is difficult to pin down. His adolescent thirst for knowledge at odds with his later stagnation, his self-determination unable to find an outlet until it latches onto fame and money. With his deep-set eyes and stern gaze, Marinelli’s version of Eden is often inscrutable, that of a man able to waft through history but unable to impose himself on it, like an empty page.

As Martin Eden turns increasingly reactionary, the initial brightness and vividness of earlier scenes dissipates, mirroring his intellectual stagnation. You can sense the influence of Luchino Visconti and his opulent, elegant visions of Italian history, harking back to The Leopard and Rocco and His Brothers. But where Visconti is carefully considered with each frame, Marcello is happy to allow chaos to filter in through the lens.

Chaos and the sense of a world increasingly on the precipice are key to the film’s charms too – though it may sound on paper like a dour, heavyweight film, there’s something deceptively light about Martin Eden, the film forever slipping just out of grasp, never quite resolving into something whole. It’s all the better for it.

Martin Eden is in cinemas from 9 July.

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