This past February, I would have bet money that The Call of the Wild would be the best Jack London adaptation of the year. Not that I cared for the movie all that much, just that film versions of his work are not exactly thick and fast on the ground. I never would have imagined that an Italian film would so firmly grasp the spirit of this American writer, and yet Martin Eden is that movie. It’s playing this weekend at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, if you’re in the mood for something on a grand scale.
Luca Marinelli portrays the title character, a Neapolitan sailor whose life changes irrevocably when he saves a young man (Giustiniano Alpi) from a beating on the docks. The man’s grateful and wealthy family invites Martin for lunch at their estate, and he’s entranced by the man’s beautiful sister Elena (Jessica Cressy), who encourages him to do some reading and gain an education. Martin takes her advice on one of his lengthy trips on a fishing vessel and decides to become a writer, saying, “I want to turn myself into one of the eyes the world sees through.” Over the course of many years, he learns proper Italian and becomes a roaring success, albeit at a steep cost.
This is the second film by director/co-writer Pietro Marcello, and he is purposefully vague about the time period of this story. The film is shot in outdated Super 16, and the grainy texture and fashions make it look like a movie from the 1970s. At the same time, there’s reference to fascists starting World War II, while African immigrants huddle together on the beach, pointing to the present day. Marcello also uses some black-and-white snippets made to look like older film footage to comment on the action — when Martin becomes aware of his lack of education, we see a peasant with rotting teeth learning to write his own name. Then, too, the old intellectual Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), one of the few characters here who has the same name as in the book, is dressed like an elderly American man from the postwar period.
It seems like Italy is the only country where they still regularly make these epics that draw a panoramic portrait of society and its different strata, from Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah to Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy As Lazzaro to Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. This one runs into issues with the second half of the book, as Marcello rushes trying to jam the novel’s incidents into a two-hour runtime. We skip entirely over the part when Martin becomes famous and marries a strikingly beautiful waitress (Denise Sardisco), who herself is a poorly developed character.
The film works best as a showcase for the sharply handsome Marinelli, who can also be seen in the Netflix thriller The Old Guard. I need to consult some real-life Neapolitans to judge the authenticity of this Roman actor’s accent, but he’s convincing as either a young firebrand standing up at a meeting of communists and telling them some unpleasant truths or a middle-aged drug addict whose gifts have dissipated. Where Martin Eden occasionally goes fuzzy, Marinelli’s performance gives the movie its backbone as it tells the story of a provocateur who loses his grip when society becomes used to him.
Starring Luca Marinelli and Jessica Cressy. Directed by Pietro Marcello. Written by Pietro Marcello and Maurizio Braucci, based on Jack London’s novel. Not rated.