Martin Eden is a poor sailor living with his sister and brother-in-law in Italy, coasting through life on his charm and good looks. One morning he steps in to rescue a boy from a beating, and is invited back to his family’s house as thanks. While there, he meets and instantly falls in love with the boy’s sister, Elena. Despite coming from a significantly better-off household, Elena also finds herself taken with Martin, and begins to give him books to read, leading to him deciding he will become a writer. Given his lack of formal education, he struggles to achieve this dream, being repeatedly rejected by the popular magazines he submits his work to, and eventually losing the affections of Elena. Then one day, as he suffers in bed with a fever, he finally gets a letter paying him for one of his stories, launching him into the world of the literary elite.
Luca Marinelli stuns in the title role, nailing the character’s evolution from wide-eyed optimism, to fierce determination, to despair and contemptuousness. Director Pietro Marcello, who typically works in the documentary format, also does a wonderful job at capturing the epic scope of the story and the more intimate details it contains. Martin’s ability to accomplish his goals through sheer force of will leads many to refer to the Jack London book the story is based on as a “success story,” though the downbeat ending and the author’s own words would tend to refute that conclusion. There is much debate about socialism vs. individualism throughout the film, with Martin himself landing very strongly on the latter side of the argument (and Mr. London on the former). As his relentless focus on his own goals leads Martin to find himself increasingly alone, you can guess where the movie falls on the matter. But don’t let those weighty themes keep you from enjoying this beautiful film. It’s a consistent pleasure to watch, and will leave you wanting to share it with as many people as you can, which is kind of the point I suppose. ★★★★★ – Sean Farrell
Available on Mubi
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor