There is an unspoken but inherent belief that the pursuit and enjoyment of art is a privilege only for the educated and well-resourced. While we like to think of art as democratic, one of the purest ways in which all human beings - regardless of race, gender, culture or class - can connect to one another, intellectual elitism and xenophobia, even capitalism, have shifted this lens. To create and comprehend requires a certain degree of education and enlightenment, and any form of artistic expression that emerges from outside of those circles is either a fallacy or an anomaly. This is, of course, absolute bullshit. Any person from any walk of life can and should have access and support in the pursuit of artistic expression, and it is a sort of heroism to push against structures put in place to impede that, both intellectual and social. To defy them is an act of revolution.
This is the central conceit of 'Martin Eden', an adaptation of the 1909 novel by American writer Jack London. Directed and co-written (with Maurizio Braucci) by Italian director Pietro Marcello, the film shifts the turn-of-the-century Californian setting to pre-World War II Italy, a period of intense political turmoil both in that country and throughout Europe. Sailor Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli, 'The Old Guard') rescues a young man from being beaten and helps him back to his rich family. Martin forms a connection with the daughter of the family, Elena (Jessica Cressy), and shares with her his desire to be a writer, despite his lack of education. He makes a bargain with Elena, that he will marry her in two years, during which time he will find a way to educate himself and establish a career as a successful writer. Despite his determination, Martin is faced with endless brick walls and struggles to find his feet, fostering a resentment for the privileges and hypocrisy of the very social class to whom Elena belongs.
'MARTIN EDEN' TRAILER
Shifting the time period to Italy on the verge of war is an astute decision, and allows for the many concerns in 'Martin Eden' to take root. Martin's journey is one of marching through molasses, determinedly pushing back on forces working against his success. His insatiable need to write is hampered by endless pressures - a lack of necessary resources, the ticking clock of his promise to Elena, even the ability to work and feed himself. The written word in Martin's life is not just what he puts to paper or the books he reads, but the endless succession of rejection letters he receives from magazines he submits his work to. He doesn't even have anyone to turn to for advice or guidance, no one to critique his work in the manner and respect that will help him grow. The chasm that begins to build between Martin and Elena will ultimately be their downfall, but in many ways, Martin is already tumbling headlong into the abyss. When success comes, it isn't the ascension he craves, but another cage to trap himself in, that horrid moment when capitalism steps in and shackles the artist to their success, where art and politics collide in a manner that is initially invigorating and soon becomes combative, and the ultimate joke, when the artist themselves lose the very fire that drove them in the first place.
Add to this the political subtext of the socialist movement and the collapsing social class of Italy before the war, and you have a potent mix with which to craft an arresting film. It's even more of a pity then that 'Martin Eden' is mostly a dull failure, a film about the beating heart, drive and anger of an artist without a beating heart or drive of its own. The biggest problem is rhythm; Marcello takes the time to craft the world and the inner life of Martin, including a clever mix of Super 16mm photography and archival footage, but even after this first act set-up, the film never changes its pace. Even as Martin's situation becomes more fraught and passionate, the film never diverts from its languid and frustrating rhythm, each successive sequence fading into the next. This has a negative knock-on effect on the rest of the film, stripping the story and even performances of their energy, delaying our arrival to the conflicts that form the heart of Martin's frustrations and struggles, and ultimately muddying the film's intentions. By the time we reach the final act, where Martin has gone from idealist to a kind of intellectual monster, it's hard to summon any feelings about him other than boredom or contempt. Perhaps this is the intention, but then it's unclear what exactly it is Marcello is trying to say. Our understanding of Martin's struggles and the commentary they offer on the wider conflict around art, privilege, class and education are made clear very soon into the film, but then it simply repeats these points until they become dull and repetitive.
By the time we reach the final act, where Martin has gone from idealist to a kind of intellectual monster, it's hard to summon any feelings about him other than boredom or contempt.
It becomes all the more frustrating held against Luca Marinelli's performance, which has all the hallmarks of a passionate, intelligent portrayal from an impressive actor. You can feel the salt and clay in his Martin, the need of expression coiled within him desperate to be released, but the film never matches what he is offering. There's also an unfortunate lack of chemistry with Jessica Cressy, whose performance as Elena suffers most from the lack of passion and drive in filmmaking. It feels as if all the film asks of her is to stand there, look beautiful and act as a vessel for Martin's passions and a symbol for everything he cannot have. Elena is not a character but an inadequate sketch of an idealised female love interest, and Cressy is not only given very little to work with but not asked to do much more. If the central conceit of the narrative is the tension over whether Martin will achieve his goal in time for Elena's hand, it fails to create that tension and give the film somewhere to go.
On face value, 'Martin Eden' should work, and there are certainly moments where you can see the potential for what the film could have been. In the end though, I found it an interminably dull film and strangely counterproductive to the story it was trying to tell. There is something impenetrable about Pietro Marcello's film, an inability to allow us in, an insistence on keeping us at arm's distance from itself in the same manner with which the world keeps Martin. I didn't leave this film empathetic to his struggle or furious at the hypocrisy of the way we frame the role of the artist and art within our society. Instead, I left exhausted from trying to do the work the film seemed disinclined to do itself, to imbue itself with the same life and passion and fury of its protagonist. Even as the credits began to roll, the experience of watching it was fading from my mind, and considering the story it was telling, this felt the most confusing and baffling part of all.