★★★★☆

There’s only one thing sadder than the fate of a failed writer and that’s the fate of a successful writer. At least, that’s the lesson this reviewer took home from Pietro Marcello’s bold interpretation of Jack London’s Martin Eden. The film transfers London’s semi-autobiographical hero from Oregon to Naples and in a period that seems to span the turn of the century to the 1970s, giving a new spin to the idea of a timeless story. Or at least one whose relevance stretches throughout the twentieth century to the present day.

Luca Marinelli plays the unemployed sailor, Martin Eden, who falls in love with Elena Orsini (Jessica Cressy), a girl from the bourgeoisie. Even more than this romantic love, Martin discovers a love of reading and the written word. He devours as many books from the Orsini library as he can and is soon neglecting any search for gainful employment in order to read and pen his own stories which we get glimpses of in a shaky series of home movie style flashbacks. At first, he finds no success and Elena tries to persuade him to accept her father’s help or try in some conventional way to make something of himself. But the bug has bitten too deeply, and Martin drives himself to exile from his love and his family and even from his class as he spurns socialism for what he calls individualism in seeking to pursue his dream of becoming a writer; blissfully unaware that success will come with its own particular flavour of despair.

Marcello and fellow screenwriter Maurizio Braucci manage to tell what could be a fairly stereotypical tale – the struggling working class artist – with a clip and a twist that makes for something fresh and inventive. The looseness of the period detail forestalls the dipped in aspic feel of many period dramas. And the change of setting allows for a tale of the ages while at the same time creating some resonant and specific points. All the talk of socialism and waving red flags takes on a poignancy when a group of fascists are seen in the background, beating up a kid. The film plays like a punkish version of Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic 1900. The cinematography by Alessandro Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo provides an immediacy at first that almost feels like television before surprising with some occasional and stunning beauty. Different film stock is used for the flashbacks and the stories that they inspire, but it is expressionistically done, conveying the sense of a writer’s mind constantly invaded by strongly felt nostalgia. Marco Messina and Sacha Ricci provided an excellent score, incorporating period elements while maintaining a strongly contemporary feel.

But the film’s strongest element and most necessary comes with Luca Marinelli’s performance. The actor deservedly won the Coppe Volpi at the Venice Film Festival in 2019 when the film premiered there. His trajectory from bright eyed hopeful naivety and innocence to jaded tobacco stained experience is brilliantly rendered. Marinelli has a brutal handsomeness while at the same time fitting perfectly with the film’s lack of period specificity. It is a performance of utter conviction which the film demands and it is one that Marinelli delivers with power and intensity.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty