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Movie Review: 'Martin Eden' Is A Beautiful Mess

Your first reaction isn’t always your best reaction. Sometimes movies seem different on a second viewing, and sometimes they just sort of change in the days after you watch them, and what you saw on Sunday doesn’t seem the same as what it is on Wednesday.


While I was watching Martin Eden, the new Italian adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 novel, it seemed a bit of a mess, although a beautiful mess. And it may still be a mess, but it’s stuck with me, and parts of it I was having trouble grabbing onto have become much more clear.


The story is a complex study of the metaphorical birth and literal death of a writer, Martin Eden. No short plot description will do, but: he begins as an uneducated young sailor who falls in love with a wealthy woman, and that, coupled with his artistic desires, lead him to educate himself and to pursue writing, knowing he cannot be with the woman unless he can achieve status, and, of course, money. He struggles as he’s rejected by publishers, often because his work is too morose, though he insists on his ideals. But while his adherence to his own vision does eventually lead to success, it also leads to a deeply poisonous worldview that corrodes his insides.


We’re a little programmed to sympathize with our protagonists, and so I felt dissonance as Martin slid down his path, especially as he begins as a handsome, likeable young man. And early on, director Pietro Marcello uses fun, breezy styles from old Italian films before slowly changing that approach as Martin’s views harden and become more odious. Couple that with the fact that Marcello sets the movie not in any particular time, but in every time—with old stock footage and historical markers from throughout the 20th century—and I’m not surprised it seemed messy, but it’s also clear that it was all intentional. And, as I’ve found in the days since, sneakily effective.


Martin Eden is currently available to stream through the Salina Art Center and other virtual cinemas.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.