Martin Eden is a sweeping yet intimate epic: tracking one man’s journey across agency, class, and status, set against the backdrop of the rise of socialism in Italy and the beginnings of World War II.
We first meet Martin (Luca Marinelli) as a bright-eyed sailor who comes to port in Naples, where he encounters a young man being beaten by another man. He instinctively intervenes to defend him, and the two become fast friends. The young man invites Martin home for dinner and it turns out that Martin had saved a boy from the upper-class, well-educated Orsini family, putting the lower-class Martin somewhat out of place in his plain attire and incorrect grammar. In spite of, or because of, his standing, he becomes smitten with Elena (Jessica Cressy), the family’s beautiful, intelligent daughter, and he vows to become educated and successful enough to become a worthy suitor to her and gain acceptance by the Orsini family.
This underlying tension continues through the whole film, through which its broader and more challenging political themes come to the surface. Martin is very poor, without a clear path forward to success or bettering himself. The town he lives in, Naples, is an extreme dichotomy of rich and poor, and workers around him call for unionization and socialism. Given the great cultural divide, and Martin’s bleak prospects, one would think these social movements would be appealing for someone like Martin struggling to get ahead.
But where Martin Eden is perhaps most exciting is how it sets up particular moments, only to subvert expectations and pivot to a different direction. In an early scene, a rally of sorts is taking place, where socialist activists are encouraging their fellow workers to unionize. Martin reluctantly gets on stage, encouraged by his companions, when he surprises everyone by denouncing socialism, and argues that unionization is merely building another power structure, and creating another master to serve, no different from capitalism.
Martin devotes himself to individualism, carving out his own success without the aid of others. Perhaps he sees the wealthy Orsini family as having done it on their own, without the government intervention of socialism, so he sees the collective efforts of unionization, or helping hand he sees socialism representing, as two ineffective means to the end he desires: becoming worthy of Elena.
Of course, he finds overnight success doesn’t come naturally to him, and he quickly grows frustrated when he bombs education equivalency exams and is told he needs to return to primary school. He sees writing as a fast-track to wealth, and latches onto poetry and fiction as his key to success, despite Elena and others dissuading him from this flight of fancy, encouraging him to stick to education and going the more traditional route.
After countless failures and falling into debt, starvation, and sickness, Eden’s fortunes turn around; his writings begin to be published, read, and celebrated – but in socialist papers. Desperate for any kind of income, regardless of its source, he feeds the fire to a movement and ideology he doesn’t believe in. His perceived political leanings cause him to fall out of favor with the Orsini family, including eventual-fiancee Elena, but he’s become so morally bankrupt he doesn’t seem to care. The bitter, resentful Martin is worlds away from the happy, eager young man we first met.
On paper, it may sound like Martin Eden bounces around extremes, but experiencing it as a film, these changes flow, sadly, very organically and naturally. The thought of an originally well-intended man looking to make it as a writer to win over his love, who becomes a sold-out hypocrite and gains success at the cost of everything that matters to him, falls into step with the narrative flow as he makes compromise after compromise throughout the film: leaving behind his family, new friends he makes as he works on his writing, and turns his back on the lower class community he’s from, once he’s made it as a socialist elite.
It is a film descending from hope and optimism into anger, resentment, and fury, not just in its text but even the aesthetics. The captivating cinematography begins like a faded photograph: bright fabrics, colors, and decors permeate the frame with a slightly muted tone but no less romantic. As Martin’s descent grows worse and worse, the life and color fades, not only in the set direction and costume design but in Martin himself, as his tan skin and dark hair change to a pallor and ghostly white hair. The magic is gone, not just in the environment and world around him, but even in Martin’s physicality and sheer being.
The film ends as World War II begins, and a new era of horror awaits Italy. Perhaps like Martin’s own descent, the inevitability of tragedy and downfall mirrors that of what awaits the country for the then-near future. Martin Eden, the film, is a radical contextual departure from the Oakland-based novel, but its new interpretation set in early 20th century Italy feels a perfect fit for a tale of optimism, promise, and eventual self-destruction.
Screened at the 31st Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival in 2020.