As was often the case, this year’s Venice competition started off strong but lost some steam as it crossed the halfway mark. These last couple of days, there hasn’t been that much to write home about. Thankfully, Italian director Pietro Marcello turned that around today with his luminous, poetic Jack London-adaptation MARTIN EDEN, a film I suspect will not leave the Lido unawarded this weekend.
The setting of the 1909 original novel is transplanted here to Italy of an unspecified era. The titular Martin (Luca Marinelli) is an undereducated young man who tries to make ends meet working as a sailor and taking on odd jobs. Martin likes to read and harbors the fantasy of becoming a writer one day, although he struggles to even piece grammatically correct sentences together using his limited vocabulary. By chance the seaman/dreamer saves the heir of the affluent Orsini family from trouble and gets to know beautiful, cultivated Elena (Jessica Cressy). Thus begins a love affair where the penniless grade school dropout tries to prove his worth by becoming a man of letters.
The plot is admittedly not breaking any ground and biographical narratives tend to further restrict creative potential, but there’s something about Marcello’s direction that feels so fresh and liberating you find yourself instantly drawn to the lives portrayed on screen. Like music, his storytelling is very rhythmic and follows an organic emotional curve. The scenes aren’t so much clear-cut building blocks as instinctual preludes to/echoes of each other. Martin could be one place this second and somewhere else the next, while seemingly random cutaways to stock footage from different eras and backgrounds further disrupt the linearity of things. But instead of being confusing, the film sweeps you off your feet with a breezy, terribly romantic groove that’s hard to describe.
Part of it has to do with the literary nature of the project. For Martin, books represent freedom, they offer a temporary refuge from his menial daily grind. And the film makes sure to capture that sense of abandon and possibility communicated by words. It takes you inside the creative mindset as the protagonist processes all that inspires him and translates them into language. In this regard, Marcello’s nonliteral, experiential approach truly works wonders.
The exquisite cinematography by Alessandro Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo must also be singled out. Not only did the two DP’s find a dreamily, timelessly gorgeous look for the film where every frame grips you like a work of classical art, the way their camera tilts, swerves and glides with wild unpredictability contributes substantially to the overall hypnotic effect. Same goes for the score created by Marco Messina and Sacha Ricci, an eclectic mix of orchestral and contemporary pieces that often defies expectations but never fails to intrigue. In a particularly memorable scene where a broke but happily enamored Martin walks down the street, his heart full of hope for a future that’s about to begin, the golden imagery and the soulful tune that accompanies it are so vividly, sizzlingly alive you just want to watch it, feel it, be in it forever.
Marinelli is terrific as the idealistic aspiring author. He commands the screen with effortless charm and evokes the innocence, frustrations, and ultimately pride of what could have been an ironed-out literary hero. The last half-hour of the film takes a more expressly political turn, which compromised its allure for me somewhat, but Marinelli still invokes enough mystery with his portrayal of a fiercely human character to carry the show brilliantly over the finish line. Yet another hot candidate for the best actor award of the festival.
Before I have to rush out to another screening, here’s a quick run-down of things I liked about some of the other films I saw. Timothée Chalamet is great in Netflix’s THE KING. His youthful looks and slim frame contrast starkly with the gravitas of his character – King Henry V of England. That contrast serves the narrative wonderfully and Chalamet brings a level of consistent, unbroken intensity to his performance that immediately demands your attention. Meryl Streep is also marvelous (surprise) in THE LAUNDROMAT, Steven Soderbergh’s anthological dark comedy about the Panama Papers. Funny, warm, dignified, she gives the playful, jazzily directed film its humanity and emotional weight. As for NO. 7 CHERRY LANE, a two-hour animated feature from Hong Kong about a mother-daughter love triangle set in the 60s, it is just so astoundingly weird and jaw-droppingly kinky that I count myself lucky to have borne witness to its psychotic grandeur.