Lost in Time
By Lawrence Garcia
Dir. Pietro Marcello, Italy/France, Kino Lorber
The sailorâ€™s spirit of adventure courses through Martin Eden, Pietro Marcelloâ€™s vigorous adaptation of Jack Londonâ€™s 1909 KĂĽnstlerromanâ€”though the story begins, as perhaps it must, with a return to port. With the fall of night occurs a routine tryst between the eponymous hero (a steely, charismatic Luca Marinelli) and a local waitress named Margherita (Denise Sardisco). But the next morning brings a chance scuffle on the docks and, with it, an unlikely visit to a mansion where Eden has a couple of crucial encounters: the first with Baudelaire, a writer as yet unknown to him (â€śIs he French?â€ť), and the second with an upper-crust university student named Elena (Jessica Cressy). Both will impel him from his proletarian seafaring origins towards what he later describes as an â€śincessant march through the kingdom of languageâ€ťâ€”only once more will he set sail as one of a nautical crew. But as the recurring, unabashedly symbolic image of an explorerâ€™s ship suggests, the allure of the sea is potent, and it lingers throughout Edenâ€™s passage into the long drift of the 20th century.
That last statement is no metaphor. In adapting Londonâ€™s novel, Marcello and his screenwriting partner Maurizio Braucci have transposed Edenâ€™s story from turn-of-the-century Oakland to the coast of Naples, but theyâ€™ve also left the question of when intentionally unresolved, indeterminate. The dominant setting seems to be the early to mid-20th century, but discontinuities proliferate. Degraded archival footage of the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta, who died in 1932, segues into a lilting sequence of nautical work set to the 1979 song "PiccerĂ¨â€ť; televisions occupy a prominent place in various dwellings, even as ways of life seem more in line with the silent era; the period costuming recalls the very early 20th century, but a poster from the late nineties at one point molders in the background. A longtime passion project for both Marcello and Braucci, Martin Eden maintains a fierce fidelity to the novelâ€™s spirit, but its sense of time is at every moment unbound.
In refusing temporal fixity, Marcello revivifies the period drama. The filmâ€™s anachronisms bear comparison to those in some of Bertrand Bonelloâ€™s work, particularly House of Pleasures (2011), or, closer to home, Alice Rohrwacherâ€™s Happy as Lazzaro (2018), though a better analogue might be found in Christian Petzoldâ€™s Anna Seghers adaptation Transit (2018), whose port city settingâ€”Marseille, instead of Naplesâ€”is likewise crucial. Whereas Petzoldâ€™s direction often leans to refined restraint, however, Marcello doesnâ€™t shy away sumptuous decoupage: lush, romantic storytelling gestures, rapturous bursts of Italian pop, and fluid camerawork that seems always in a state of constant reinvention. In an interview with Cinema Scope magazine, Braucciâ€”who was born in Naples and also co-wrote Abel Ferraraâ€™s Napoli, Napoli, Napoli (2009)â€”points out Italyâ€™s lack of maritime literature, and Martin Eden might thus be considered an exploratory foray in that regard. As Martin and Elenaâ€™s mutual attraction blossoms amidst their conspicuous class differences, he resolves to become a writer, and asks her to wait for two years, while he can toil in relative solitudeâ€”a promise not so different from that of a sailorâ€™s wife. Indeed, though thereâ€™s no imminent threat of death in Edenâ€™s chosen journey, there remains the likelihood that he will eventually sink beneath his own ambition and resolve, never to return.
Trained as a painter at the lâ€™Accademia di Belle Arti, Marcello worked for many years as a relatively under-the-radar documentarian. In 2015, his first fiction feature Lost and Beautifulâ€”a folkloric, fable-like mĂ©lange of vĂ©ritĂ© and ethereal evocationsâ€”brought him greater levels of acclaim, introducing more viewers to, especially, his enduring predilection for archival material. (The filmâ€™s title might well serve as a statement of aesthetic preferences.) But if thereâ€™s a feature that best encapsulates Marcelloâ€™s philosophy of style, it is The Silence of PeleĹˇjan (2011). A 52-minute biographical documentary about the Armenian filmmaker Artavazd PeleĹˇjan, it opens with an epigraph that lays out its subjectâ€™s concept of â€śdistance montage,â€ť which springs from a conviction that the essence of editing is not in joining frames, but in their distances: â€ś...The most important thing is that the key elements interact at a distance like charged particles and create an emotional field for the entire film.â€ť Marcelloâ€™s documentary was titled for PeleĹˇjanâ€™s literal refusal to speak. But it also highlights a crucial aspect of the Italian directorâ€™s own practice, which is his willingness to engage with the uncooperative, to put himself in dialogue with that which will not, or cannot, speakâ€”except, perhaps, through images.
Action at a distance: thus does Marcello place Londonâ€™s novel in conversation with an entire century of Italian history, alongside which one might trace the birth of the nationâ€™s industry, or the broader technological development of cinema itself. The silent-era footage at the start of Martin Eden bears comparison to the opening credits of Terrence Malickâ€™s Days of Heaven (1978), with its sepia-toned photographs of turn-of-the-century American life, while scenes of Marinelli working a foundry might likewise bring to mind Richard Gereâ€™s aggrieved Chicago laborer from that film. (One might also recall that Londonâ€™s novel becomes a kind of touchstone to a young Noodles in Sergio Leoneâ€™s lustrous 1984 epic Once Upon a Time in America.) Drawing from a range of sourcesâ€”old clips from his own past films, archival material, and original footage graded to look as suchâ€”Marcello assembles uncanny, collage-like forms. In different hands, the filmâ€™s quicksilver shifts of texture and moodâ€”that is, of an individualâ€™s sense of his own timelineâ€”could register as mannered intrusions or obvious, drily academic gestures. But the filmâ€™s robust portrayal of Edenâ€™s trajectory allows for such ruptures and digressions and curlicues, which open it up in ways unusual for a literary adaptation. In opposing the tendency to privilege contemporary mores and perspectives, Marcelloâ€™s temporal representations might be said to reject presentism in all its forms. Of this, thereâ€™s no more elegant expression than Martinâ€™s first encounter with Elena, which unfolds from the perspective of an Impressionist painting he was scrutinizing moments beforeâ€”the two actors appearing just out of focus, blurring into the roomâ€™s dĂ©cor and the imageâ€™s rich 16mm grain. In this scene, as in the rest of the film, we look into the pastâ€”only to find it looking back out at us.
Although not a rigorous study in oratory Ă la Mike Leighâ€™s recent, undervalued Peterloo, Martin Eden nonetheless delineates the role of language in engendering political upheaval. In particular, it portrays the clash between the rising tide of socialism (glimpsed through a series of workersâ€™ rallies) and Edenâ€™s fierce, selfish individualism (fomented mainly by Herbert Spencerâ€™s First Principles). Throughout all this, thereâ€™s the stabilizing presence of Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), a poet who first encourages Eden to abandon his literary ambitions, but who becomes something of a mentor to him. It is Brissenden, himself a committed socialist, who prompts Eden to speak out in protest at a socialist rally, and it is his eventual suicide that occasions the filmâ€™s most decisive turn.
After a scene of drunken despondency, wherein Eden collapses in a field, we leap sometime into the future and find him in a state of Viscontian decadence and decayâ€”no longer the hardy proletarian, with Marinelliâ€™s hair shockingly bleached, and his teeth blackened in the manner of Helmut Bergerâ€™s eponymous royal in Viscontiâ€™s 1973 opus Ludwig. (This abrupt dissolution of years carries an ache aptly described in Remember Me, David Stactonâ€™s 1957 historical novel of Ludwig II: â€śLife burns us away with a fine omnivorous rush, even though subjectively the years are banked.â€ť) What follows is an unquestionable departure in both cadence and form, in which the relationship between an artist and a wider culture of engagement is most pronounced. With Eden now a literary sensation, this section trades in the propulsive urgency of his upward social climb for a kind of sumptuous stasis, born of the writerâ€™s self-loathing and ambivalence toward his public successâ€”the very same feelings that prompted London to first write Martin Eden more than a century earlier.
Because it ties up a number of loose narrative ends with a series of visits from supporting characters, this final, roughly half-hour movement is Martin Edenâ€™s most obvious concession to its literary origins. It might be considered indicative of a greater failure, or perhaps merely attenuated and politically didactic. But even here, Marcello injects a measure of indeterminacy: by bookending this final chapter with twinned episodes of Edenâ€™s uncharacteristic mental volatilityâ€”a drunken stupor, a fevered deliriumâ€”he explicitly decouples it from the movieâ€™s dominant drift, thereby confounding temporal, and thus political certainties. Near the end, as Eden watches a version of himself walk along the cityâ€™s boardwalk, one might be inclined to see an aging sybarite looking with regret at a picture of youth and idealism. But if Martin Edenâ€™s time-based slippages have conveyed anything, we might do well to consider the reverseâ€”that is, a youthful idealist gripped by the premonition of an unwelcome fate. Resisting the usual dichotomy between â€śnowâ€ť and â€śthen,â€ť Marcello places bothâ€”incongruously, and thus movinglyâ€”on the same plane of existence, with neither perspective privileged over the other. Once again, we look back into the past, only to find it returning our gaze.
When we last see Eden, he is sitting on a beach at sunset, and Marinelliâ€™s hair and teeth have been restored to their original states. A man announces, â€śThe war has started.â€ť A group of soldiers mill about near the surf, while Eden stares out to sea, as if poised for yet another adventureâ€”perhaps at the beginning of the centuryâ€™s first world war, perhaps at the second. We then cut to the sun hovering over the horizonâ€”an image that, in this film of ceaseless striving and fickle fortunes, must stand in place of the eternal. Although bound by human conceptions of time, Eden must finally face that which remains indifferent to its passage.