Producers: Pietro Marcello, Beppe Caschetto, Thomas Ordonneau, Michael Weber and Viola Fügen   Director: Pietro Marcello   Screenplay: Maurizio Braucci and Pietro Marcello   Cast: Luca Marinelli, Jessica Cressy, Denise Sardisco, Vincenzo Nemolato, Carmen Pommella, Elisabetta Valgoi, Carlo Cecchi , Anna Patierno, Giustiniano Alpi, Marco Leonardi and Pietro Ragusa  Distributor: Kino Lorber

Grade: C

As ambitious as its protagonist, this adaptation of Jack London’s semi-autobiographical novel fails as badly as he does in the end. 

The 1909 book—a novel of ideas (class differences, the struggle of socialism against individualism) presented in the form of the biography of a writer—would be a hard nut to crack under any circumstances.  A 1942 Columbia Pictures version starring Glenn Ford, “The Adventures of Martin Eden,” didn’t really try, preferring to become a lesser-light “Sea Wolf” instead.  (There were two other attempts, a 1914 silent film and a 1979 mini-series, but both are virtually inaccessible.  Apparently another adaptation is currently in post-production.)

Italian writer-director Pietro Marcello certainly takes the novel seriously, and has attempted not only to tell London’s story faithfully on a broad canvas, but to universalize it and give it a timeless quality.  Not only does he transpose it from Oakland, California to Naples, but deliberately obfuscates the chronology, shuffling the fashions and backdrops randomly to keep one at sea as much as Eden is.  (At one point an elderly man informs Martin, as he wakes from a drunken stupor on a beach, that war has been declared, and we wonder which one.)  And he inserts documentary footage of various vintages, most of it old and some even distressed, to provide a sort of context—or, given the images’ ambiguous character, anti-context. 

The result is a would-be intimate epic that includes some striking images but overall is bewildering to the point of aggravation. 

Martin, played by strapping, swaggering Luca Marinelli, is introduced as a seaman who, after bedding a pretty girl, intervenes to save a young man, Arturo Orsini (Giustiniano Alpi), from a beating at the hands of a burly thug.  The boy invites him home, where he’s greeted with a muted welcome by Arturo’s sister Elena (Jessica Cressy) and well-to-do parents (Pietro Ragusa and Elisabetta Valgoi) and studied contempt from their housekeeper (Anna Patierno).

Martin is overcome by Elena’s grace and beauty and by the elegance the family exudes, and aspires to become a part of their class—and Elena’s husband.  She tells him that what he needs is education, and so he becomes a voracious reader, an autodidact with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, especially of a literary and philosophical sort.  One of the writers he embraces most fully is Herbert Spencer, the disciple of Charles Darwin who applied evolution to the society, developing what came to be called social Darwinism and bringing the concept of “the survival of the fittest” to the social and political spheres.  Spencer was also an absolute opponent of socialism, which he considered a force that would crush individual freedom and equated with slavery.

Moreover Martin doesn’t want merely to learn; he’s determined also to be a great writer, and begins banging out story after story on a used typewriter (which, it must be added, holds up remarkably well under the pressure), all of which are summarily rejected by prospective buyers.  (The envelopes labeled “return to sender” are a motif that becomes as irritating to the viewer as to poor Martin.)  After his boorish brother-in-law (Marco Leonardi) tosses him out for refusing to do real work, he finds refuge in the home of down-to-earth widow Maria Silvia (Carmen Pommella) and her children, whom he meets on a train and is far more tolerant of his incessant writing.    

All the while Martin remains in thrall to Elena’s beauty, and she responds to his reports of his intellectual; progress with soothing messages (often delivered straight into the camera in placid tones).  But her parents clearly think him below their station, and though they feel compelled to invite him to their home on occasion—to a party, or a dinner—he’s manifestly out of place.  Though at the party he bonds with Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), a crotchety old fellow who introduces him to socialist activism and urges him join the fold, while at the dinner he clashes with the other well-toned guests, so-called liberals like the Orsini whom he accuses of being closet socialists themselves.  And at a socialist rally to which he’s dragged by Brissenden, he harangues the crowd for being willing to trade one master for another, and is roundly booed for promoting an individualist agenda like one he’d heard years ago before he began his intense self-education.

Finally Martin sells a story—called “The Apostate”—but though the title suggests his departure from some creed or other, we never learn anything of its content, nor of any of the rest of his writing, except for the fact that his supportive sister and Elena both find it much too grim and humorless—so much so that he’s eventually dumped by his beloved.  Nevertheless in the final act of the film we must accept that he’s become a superstar author whose every word is treated as oracular even by readers who don’t understand what he’s saying. 

Yet he’s an intensely unhappy celebrity who alternately broods and explodes volcanically as he prowls about his palatial apartment, coddled by his lower-class aide Nino (Vincenzo Nemolato) and soothed by Margherita (Denise Sardisco), a beautiful ex-waitress who found her infatuation with him reciprocated after Elena has abandoned him.  He’s about to go off on a tour of America, but before he departs he gives a chunk of money to a radical leader—to help what cause we don’t know—and then berates a crowd of fawning fans at a news conference, where he bellows out lines like “Life disgusts me!” and treats them all with contempt.  There’s a fraught reunion with Elena, who looks as unchanged from her youthful self as he does a dissipated wreck, before he spies Martin as the film originally presented him walking down the street and tries to catch up with his younger self.  (Get the symbolism?)  Then he…well, read the book.

Marinelli dominates the entire film as Martin, and his eye-catching performance is certain to garner praise from many, although it’s actually operatic in the worst sense, especially in the final act.  The remainder of the cast is capable, but apart from Pommella, who exudes sweetness, and Cecchi, who steals his scenes though Brissenden remains a thoroughly opaque figure, none—not even Cressy—comes off particularly well. 

As for the technical side of things, one has to admire the skill of cinematographers Francesco Di Giacomo and Alessandro Abate, who are forced to go from classically-framed compositions to jerky hand-held shots at the director’s whim, as well as production designer Tiziana Poli and costumer Andrea Cavalletto, who must similarly tackle such abrupt transformations in the face of the picture’s visual time shifts.  Editors Aline Hervé and Fabrizio Federico can hardly be said to have produced a smooth product, what with those documentary inserts and all, but the lack of coherence can’t be put at their doorstep, while the score Marco Messina, Sacha Ricci and Paolo Marzocchi provides a ripe sauce poured over the visuals. 

In a letter to Upton Sinclair about his novel, London, then an ardent socialist, wrote that the book was meant as a critique of individualism but was widely misinterpreted as a celebration of it.  “I must have bungled it,” he admitted ruefully.  The line is assimilated into the diatribe Eden delivers at his press conference late in Marcello’s film.  Unfortunately, it could be applied to Marcello’s earnest but flawed adaptation of “Martin Eden,” too.