Martin Eden: Gossip Boy, by David Bax
Shot on 16mm film, often with a handheld camera, Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden embodies much of the stripped down zeal we associate with the various European cinematic movements of the mid-twentieth century. But it’s also a lavishly appointed period piece, with production and costume design at the level of studio grandeur. There’s a tension created by that push and pull and it extends to pretty much everything else in this thorny and ever-stimulating movie.
There’s not much to the plot of Martin Eden. Martin (Luca Marinelli), a working class sailor of little education, becomes enamored of the high life and attempts to rise above his station by becoming a writer. His evolving politics, though, cause friction with both the society world and the socialist one, both of which had come to embrace him.
Stories about social climbers abound, especially in American fiction; though the film is set in Italy, it’s based on a novel by Jack London. That America-Italy connection makes the comparison to The Talented Mr. Ripley easy to make. But the hallmarks of this narrative subcategory are largely the same in that novel as they are on television’s Gossip Girl. An outsider’s acceptance into the sphere of the wealthy will always come weighted with asterisks representing suspicion, condescension and patronization. But in Martin’s growing antipathy toward that world–as well as in his being introduced to it by coming to the rescue of a rich boy–his tale eventually comes to resemble the legend of Australia’s Ned Kelly as well.
Marcello cleverly illustrates the persistence of class concerns throughout the twentieth century by setting his movie, well, throughout the twentieth century. Archival footage, some of which looks as if it’s been colorized, appears in montages tying Martin Eden to the history of the labor movement. But the film itself is intentionally discombobulating about when it actually takes place. Automobiles from the 1940s coexist with fashions from the 1910s to the 1970s.
This nebulousness speaks to Martin Eden‘s intellectually invigorating refusal to be pinned down on any single point of view. Is it Martin Eden the film or Martin Eden the character, for instance, who is ambivalent toward socialism? He seems to listen approvingly when someone asks socialists, “Where is the individual in your politics?” or observes that, “they only fight to have new bosses.” But Marcello is no neo-liberalist, giving us a metaphor for the corrupting influence of capitalism in Martin’s teeth rotting as he excels financially.
Still, Martin Eden is first and foremost about Martin Eden. And it’s just as ambivalent about him as it is about his politics. As with Tom Ripley, we are as disgusted by his naked ambition as we are enthralled in the wish fulfillment of his ascent.