Downfall: Martin Eden (2020)-Reviewed

Didacticism is a concept American audiences have always struggled with, especially in film. Protagonists being presented as they are without a clear condemnation is often met with frustration and sometimes even anger from viewers. There's an instinct to want the author to push back on the person they're portraying, to tell us "the things this person is doing are bad." In the worst case scenario, viewers might end up ascribing the protagonist's beliefs or actions onto the author or artist. A recent example was the baffling outcry that Hayao Miyazaki was "Pro-War" after he made The Wind Rises. It's become even easier to fall into this trap as American films, especially the blockbusters, drift further into portraying "Good vs Bad" in the starkest of terms while doing the mental work for you. It's fascinating though, how even with Twitter making everyone's thoughts readily available, this has always been a bit of a problem. 

Jack London's semi-autobiographical Martin Eden told the story of a young, proletarian man struggling to become a published author. In it, the titular Martin rails against the "slavery" that comes with socialism and instead fights for individualism and survival of the fittest. After finding success and becoming a world renowned voice, he doubles down on his far-right views, eschewing the collective entirely and almost drifting into full on fascism. It was a scathing commentary on the ills of individualism  and London, an avowed socialist, lamented that readers seemingly missed that entirely. 

Taking London's novel and relocating it Italy, director Pietro Marcello doubles all the way down on portraying Martin Eden exactly as is and in turn delivers one of the most scathing, vital and beautiful films of the year. Keeping the bones of the story the same, Marcello's Martin Eden follows a young and ambitious Martin (Luca Marinelli), living in poverty with aspirations at becoming a world renowned writer. Working on boats, living with his sister and scrapping with anyone who looks at him the wrong way, Martin is working class personified. After saving a young man from trouble, Martin returns the man to his bourgeois family and is immediately enamored with his family (particularly his sister Elena, played by Jessica Cressy) and their lifestyle. It's here Martin sees the life that he thinks he's destined for, one of riches and success.

Martin is a fascinating contradiction of a man. He's unwelcome by the high status community that he inserts himself in, Elena's family is very much against his courtship of her. Their dismissal of him only hardens an anger inside of him that manifests as both desire to be on their level and disgust at their classicist attitudes. He's passionately proletarian too, demanding hard work of himself, by any means necessary. If it means living with a poor family to seclude himself in his writing, then so be it. Once he starts receiving checks for his writing from magazines seeking to publish him, he provides the family with groceries and a nicer home. That Martin is so violently opposed to socialism lives an irony that almost screams off of the screen. Martin attends multiple socialist rallies only to come away with the notion that under socialism, exists yet another master. 

Marinelli plays these contradictions impeccably. It's difficult to get a read on him early on because Marinelli is such an empathetic performer and his striking, almost impossible good looks, lure you into his cult of personality. Marcello's direction is one part of it but Marinelli is maybe the most singular reason why anyone would fall for the false notion that this text is endorsing his descent into full-on fascism. He's almost childlike in his desire for something more. Living in poverty, he has a facile understanding of the larger world around him. He wasn't afforded an education and instead has to pretend (often poorly) to be something he isn't.  Marinelli gets every single nuance of that and brilliantly transposes that juvenile personality onto the horror of a man Martin becomes. Martin after spending years toiling, finally achieves the fame and fortune as a writer. Despite the success, the following and the riches he finally has, he's still the immature man he's always been. It's an excellent and transformative performance that keeps the heart of who he once was even if the stunning looks have faded and his soul all but eroded. 

What Marinelli and Marcello understand is that individualism and how it often leads to strongman cult of personalities, is deeply rooted in a selfish view of the world. And that selfishness stems from an inherently childish starting point. It's a fascinating and devastating spiral. Devastating because it's not just a commentary on the man himself but on a society that sets people up to fail. Martin makes multiple attempts to better himself and his understanding of the world around him and he's rebuffed at every turn. He tries to get a secondary education and he's turned away, basically being mocked in the process. He receives looks of plain disgust from Elena's family and friends, and often from Elena herself. Even if Marcello (by way of London) is ultimately settling on the ills of individualism through Martin, his insistence that you emphasize is a stroke of brilliance. It's undeniably easy to understand why Martin would turn into the man he turns into after he's basically discarded as trash. But therein lies the rub. Martin is a stunningly handsome man with a personality that sears through his shortcomings. He has advantages even if he's unwilling to acknowledge them. That's maybe the biggest bit of genius about the film. His reprehensible views eat into his morality and result in a physical transformation, one almost unrecognizable from who we meet in the beginning.

It would be enough for an excellent script and central performance to position Martin Eden as one of the best films of the year. It's Marcello and his collaborator's craft that transcend it into something more. There's a curiosity within the placement of the camera that calls to mind Agn├Ęs Varda. It makes sense because like Varda, Marcello has a background in documentary filmamaking. As Martin starts his journey, DP's Alessandro Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo shoot Martin in stunning wides, letting the world overtake him. As Martin flirts with socialism, their camera is as focused on him as it is the people and places around him. As he drifts deeper into himself and individualism, their camera slowly moves into him, ignoring the environments he's also beginning to forget. By the end, the camera is so claustrophobic and unmoving, it's almost unbearable. He’s become such a repulsive person and the camera demands you bear witness. It's visual storytelling at its highest level. It's what cinema is made for and something that can only be captured with moving imagery. It's the camera as sociological tool. It's subtle and if you don't look for it, it's not something you latch onto but it's one of the best uses of cinematography of the year. 

Marcello also makes the bold choice to let Martin Eden seemingly exist in many versions of a past, over decades, all at once. When we meet Martin, the world he inhabits feels like an Italy at the turn of the century. Everything from his job to the way he dresses, coupled with vague talk of a coming war and fears of communism, suggests as much. Intercutting real world images, including a spellbinding sequence of colorized black and white footage that blends perfectly with the gorgeous imagery of the film, Marcello leans on his documentarian past by melding Eden's fictional reality with one that existed. But when he first encounters Elena, the world sinks backwards into an almost 19th century pastiche of fancy dress and manners. Marcello further muddies the waters when, all of a sudden, more modern cars start appearing and people begin dressing like it's the 60s or 70s. In another film, this would come off as anachronistic but here it all feels natural, especially with the aid of Marco Messina and Sacha Ricci's synthy, retro for us, modern for the film, score. 

Like the camera, Marcello uses every aspect of what cinema can do to transport us while also delivering a harsh truth: This exists everywhere, all at once because people like Martin Eden have existed everywhere, all at once. The thing about Martin is that as deeply committed to individualism as he is, he's just another charming, flavor of the month kind of guy who exudes a populism that's attractive in the moment but underneath lies a hollow, ugly center. There have always been Martin Edens and the film's power is that it makes that strikingly clear while forcing its viewer to emphasize. We struggle so much with films that aren’t didactic because we don’t want to see ourselves in things we disagree with. Martin Eden presents a sympathetic and easily identifiable figure without telling us how feel. The tragedy of Martin Eden, however, isn't in the descent of our titular "hero" but rather the fact that we keep falling for men like him, like clockwork. 

-Brandon Streussnig