When I think about the theater-going experience that is non-existent right now, I’m not really all that interested in the whole popcorn and soda bit, though I do almost always get a soda when I watch a movie there. What I really think about is how sitting in a large dark room and having a giant screen engulf me into its world is a rare escape from this one that feels more and more like a rat trap. Not every movie is capable of this kind of immersion even with a giant screen but the ones that provide an experience unlike any other.
The reason I loved The Irishman so much was that when I watched it last year, it was clear I was watching it with people who really wanted to be there, in that theater. The movie had an impending Netflix release only two weeks post its theatrical one, so the people who were willing to get up and out, spend money on a ticket, and sit there with a few close friends and complete strangers wanted whatever feeling it was that only a theater can give.
In Another (Cruel) World
If The Irishman was the most collective joy with my fellow moviegoer that I felt inside a theater in 2019, the most immersed and released from the sour tangibles of our world I felt was during a late-December screening of Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden. A loose Italian adaptation of Jack London’s epic novel, the movie’s sense of place and time is so detailed and infectious that one can’t escape being submerged in its elaborately curated world.
Taking place in a port city (shot in Naples, but the actual location or time is never revealed), the movie is rich with water-color pastels, sand, and salt. Martin Eden emerges in the movie from a shipping vessel and propensity as a womanizer is established early. Luca Marinelli who is tall, broad-shouldered, and commands every scene of the film both physically and emotionally, gives a stunningly charismatic performance that combines both youthful wonder and ruthless manly ambition.
His character is truly a man of the sea – a vagrant in many ways, who crashes the party of the rich and elite soon after he comes ashore and falls in love with an aristocratic, well-educated girl named Elena. Eden is an aspiring writer but his lack of education and his rough, cynical, and borderline nihilistic proletarian outlook clouds his writing with suffering and darkness, much to Elena’s chagrin.
If there’s a major theme at play in Martin Eden it is the theme of the bourgeoisie’s tethered connection and indifference to the true cruelty suffered by those underneath them. Martin Eden’s relationship and courtship of Elena posits a social, ideological, and perhaps most damning, a geographic one. The movie’s juxtaposition of Elena’s surroundings of lush green gardens and flowers and pearl-white homes with dainty outdoor furniture and the rugged slated earth and fish-guts of the port where Martin Eden spends his days is deliberate and fierce.
In a brilliantly energetic sequence, Eden drags Elena through the grimy cobble-stoned alleyways where the port city’s poorest and most desperate reside. She is disgusted and scared, but Eden makes it clear that he is of these people, tied to them in both misfortune and in the consciousness of class disparity.
An Epic Tale of Italy
Pietro Marcello has two great assets from his documentary career that both come to full fruition in his first narrative feature. First is his ability to form a verbal communication bridge between the salt-of-the-earth characters he focuses his camera on, and the audience. There is a distinct personal familiarity his movies have with allowing his subjects the space and time to talk at length.
In Crossing the Line, wherein he documents night-workers and laborers taking long train-rides, he gives them full agency to discuss the political and social issues of modern day Italy. There is a lot of monologues and speeches in Martin Eden, highlighting that its central character’s lack of education or social standing does not preclude him from a consciousness about the state of his nation nor from the ability to orate his thoughts.
Marcello understands that non-formal experiences can be just as important as formal ones, and if the privileges of structured study is only more valuable in an arbitrary sense than the lived realities of individuals, it is important to let those with no voice in upper-class spaces the chance to explain how they see the same nation in a completely different way.
Martin Eden fully gets his voice once his burgeoning career as a writer, seemingly doomed for a long time and keeping him in poverty, begins to flourish after he is finally published in a major newsletter. The use of physical writing over time to tell a story is a way in which Marcello depicts the evolution of character in his films. In same way Marcello’s documentary about an ex-convict in Genoa – Mouth of the Wolf – uses letters between lovers to richly contextual their present, in Martin Eden, the central characters writings – his published manuscripts and letters he sends – give us context to the film’s sweeping account of its complex hero’s changing ideology and increasingly chaotic mental state as he rises from a proletariat nobody to a successful author.
It is this sense of telling the story of a place through accounts of people – of different social class, geography, and time – which is Marcello’s second great asset and lends to his film’s ‘epic’ scale. Marcello’s intercuts of stock footage from different cameras from different eras of the past also add a sense of artistic grandeur as if trying not only to tell the story of a person but the entire history of the place that he or she inhabits. Despite Martin Eden being only two hours, it is so densely packed with a cosmos’s volume of emotion and life, that it is as epic as any Sergio Leone or David Lean film. When I walked out of the theater, I felt like I had lived the life of Martin Eden.
Martin Eden released in select U.S. venues on October 2019. It is available for purchase and rent on Amazon US.
Watch Martin Eden
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