Millennials need a hero, and the protagonist in the new Italian film version of Jack London’s 1909 novel Martin Eden has been expatriated to fit the bill. The film’s almost unanimous critical reception can be explained by its hero’s infatuation with socialism. Martin (played by Italian actor Luca Marinelli) scoffs at the working class’s naïve, union-based political sentiments until he formulates his own similar, self-serving philosophy.
Martin’s version of layperson urbanity, propelled by his enthrallment with Elena (Jessica Cressy), an educated yet naïve beauty from the wealthy Orsini family, matches those students who take to the streets full of benighted zeal but lacking in real-world experience. Martin reads and interprets Baudelaire his own simplistic way; he’s an autodidact and solipsist who rails against the establishment and despite the odds becomes a literary sensation and political orator. His career reflects the current fashion in ideological groupthink — also a defect of our partisan critical constabulary that has made Martin Eden a film-festival favorite.
But the film’s basic class problem is also an impediment to its popularity. Martin resembles those mainstream media stars who get their reputation from social-media sarcasm, except that the tall, intense actor Marinelli is physically different; he makes for a burly, roughneck poet strutting down the street, often with two books in his manly one-handed grip. Brimming with spleen and ideals, he makes a vow: “Turn myself into one of the eyes through which the world sees. I want to become a writer.”
This may be how leftist-media soyboys fantasize themselves, but it doesn’t register with reality in ways that make for a popular hit. There hasn’t been a broad-shouldered movie star since Harrison Ford, and Marinelli’s Martin contradicts the modern style because the idea of heroism (following the media’s calculated celebration of Obama) is itself confused.
Confusion describes Marcello’s directorial manner. His narrative is an elaborate and deliberately anachronistic construction, ostensibly set in the early 20th century but slipping in contemporary details. Marcello mixes in vintage film clips that suggest the same passionate expressivity as Martin’s fledgling writings, but the effect, though at first a rousing reminder of Italian political film history (and that country’s Marxist-infatuated visual poets who transcended Marxism), winds up superficial.
Martin Eden appears at a time of desperation and disorder, partly due to COVID but also stemming from the culture grab that’s long been apparent in establishment media this millennium. As an Italian adapting an American novel, Marcello treats American character as a way to understand his own culture. This peculiarity recalls how Chelsea Clinton’s politics led her to completely misunderstand and distort the meaning of Jack London’s Call of the Wild, which she discussed on the PBS series The Great American Read.
Marcello misinterprets London’s obsession with political ideology (especially Martin’s infatuated relationship with a mentor’s high-handed social Darwinism) as nothing more than a facile and facetious tale of social climbing. It has just enough cynicism to seem smart. (The mentor’s suicide attempt, using a “Bible with a hole in it,” is matched to silent-movie footage of a majestic schooner sinking into the sea.) Martin started off as a merchant marine, like the hero of the Coen brothers’ most overrated film, Inside Llewyn Davis — another disenchanted search for a hero that took pains to equate Bob Dylan–style folk-singing ambition with a nostalgic egotistic political movement.
At 44 years old Marcello is part of the generation that has lost the means of measuring character and integrity. So this Europeanized Martin Eden is also all about the millennium’s self-obsessed politics and culture, using London’s novel as precedent rather than the homegrown explorations of Francesco Rosi’s magnificent Salvatore Giuliano or Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere (2009), which scrutinized Mussolini in light of the world’s Obama obsession. When Martin declines, loses all desire, and observes a drawing of his youthful self, he turns into his own portrait of Dorian Gray — a chic, shallow finish. This film’s many literary and cinematic echoes may please the cognoscenti, but Jack London’s heroic neophyte subject needs a more self-critical update.