Film & TV

Critics Wave the Red Flag for a Socialist Parable

Luca Marinelli in Martin Eden. (Kino Lorber)
What the Italian film Martin Eden tells us about hard-left fantasies.

‘Socialism is the only thing that will save you,” a red-flag waving activist promises the protagonist of the movie Martin Eden, which is being praised as a masterpiece by left-wing writers and was named the best film of 2020 by several of them. Martin dismisses this advice, and is undone.

So: Viva socialism? This movie has got it all worked out. Never mind that socialism has been a disaster every place it’s ever been tried: The sort of people who deride Avengers movies for being childish fantasy are sticking to their gauzy childlike views about socialism, the ideology that’s always on the brink of success in some fantasist’s imagination.

Martin Eden isn’t, however, much of a movie, and doesn’t even do a particularly good job of defining its rhetorical parameters; to the extent it makes an argument, it does so poorly. But if socialism fan-service is what you’re after, maybe this will be right up your alley.

The title figure (Luca Marinelli) is a glowering brute with a soft side, the standard teen-girl fantasy of a fellow with a body hewn of granite and the soul of a poet. Martin makes his living on the sea in a temporally hazy Italy: This guy seemingly grew up in the Seventies yet, as several decades pass, it never seems later than the Eighties. I think the technical term for the look of this film is “constrained by budget.” We’re also in an alternative-timeline Italy: Unless I missed something, the real country hasn’t had a war in recent decades, but Martin Eden takes place against a backdrop of lurking militarism.

Martin’s life changes after a chance encounter with a passing stranger who introduces him to a family of aristocratic types living in palatial splendor. The young blue-eyed principessa, Elena (Jessica Cressy) is alluring but out of Martin’s league in class and education, so he resolves to earn her hand by willing himself to be an intellectual. Her snooty family vaguely disapproves of his machinations, and her friends set out to embarrass him at a party — but he turns the tables by reciting some of his beautiful poetry.

As Martin struggles to make it as a writer (it’s not clear what he’s writing, but we’re meant to think it’s gritty, engagé stuff about the mean streets of Povertytown), his fortunes improve with Elena even though he’s so poor that dirt feels sorry for him. Things turn a bit frosty among her family when his picture appears in the paper: He spoke at a socialist rally, and the aristos don’t approve (though they hasten to point out they’re liberals).

Here’s where things take a turn for the weird: Martin isn’t a socialist. He declares he’s a radical individualist, and though he spoke at the rally it was only to denounce the Reds, who hate him. Everything Martin says is absolutely correct, yet the audience is meant to think that his soul is beginning to turn rancid. “You socialists dream of a revolution that will make the state your own so that this gives equal rights to all,” he says. “Who are these ‘all’? The workers’ organizations, through their unions, not single workers.” Since this is exactly what happened under Leninism — the unions became the Soviets, Lenin ran them with an iron hand and the only “equal right” the workers ever enjoyed was equality of misery — this is pretty much a mic drop. “You can’t pay attention only to the collective,” Martin also says, warning that workers who seek the warm embrace of socialism will instead find “the strongest among them will be their new masters. But this time they’ll do it in secret . . . and worse than what your bosses do to you today.” Again, the history book says this is exactly what happens. Sign up for socialism, and be ruled by the Stasi.

The movie is freely adapted from the novel by Jack London, a raging socialist at the time he wrote it, but the author died in 1916, before the clarifying example of the Russian Revolution, so he at least had the excuse of ignorance. I’m puzzled why film critics born in the last 75 years seem to have missed the news about how socialism actually turned out, though. Were they in the multiplex this whole time and missed reality? When Martin finally achieves fame for his individualist writings, he spends the last act of the movie as a shouting, greasy, filthy-toothed monster who hates himself. Among the books he writes that are supposed to signal his depravity is one called The Dignity of Usury. Since there’s no such thing as usury (there can’t be an “unfair” price of money any more than there is an “unfair” price of meat or milk; whenever the price is too high, consumers simply opt out), this guy makes music I can certainly dance to.

But I fail to see why his persona is supposed to scare me, despite the ominous threats of war heard in the closing minutes. What does war have to do with Martin Eden’s individualist stance? Whenever war is declared, the first thing that happens is that everyone is told to sacrifice their petty individual concerns and work for the collective goal. Libertarians don’t want to invade your country, they just want to be left alone. Adolf’s boys didn’t call themselves “National Libertarians.”

Critics are united in saying Martin Eden is a timely warning about the perils of fascism. Only if a fascist is defined as “one who points out the flaws in socialism.” Come to think of it, that’s probably exactly what they think; it would certainly explain a lot of their rhetoric. This film’s confused writer-director, Pietro Marcello, who describes himself as “an individualist, an anarchist, a socialist and a libertarian,” also has said, despairingly, that he made this movie as a reflection on 2020 because “no one would have dreamt 40 years ago that Europe would be divided.” By that he means, I suppose, that today’s Europe is divided between people who like the direction it’s going in, and people who don’t. But that’s true of all free countries.

As for 40 years ago, Europe was rather more starkly divided: At the time there were high walls and barbed-wire fences running right down the middle of it, guarded by minefields and soldiers with machine guns — and the purpose of all of it was to murder anyone who sought to flee socialism.

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