Toward a Necessary Cinema: Pietro Marcello on “Martin Eden”

The Italian cineaste discusses his adaptation of Jack London’s novel, and the role of filmmaking as a vehicle for change.
Leonardo Goi

By the time a publicist signals that my turn has come, director Pietro Marcello has just wrapped his last roundtable interview of the day, and slouches on a sofa at the Excelsior Hotel, peering at the terrace a few steps away from us, and the Adriatic Sea, sprawling bright and calm further down. It’s the midway point of the 76th Venice Film Festival, and the thick late summer air above the Lido is packed with the noise of people besieging the red carpet. A self-taught documentarian (DIY credentials he would proudly and rightfully boast in our interview), Marcello first bowed on the Lido in 2007, when his Crossing the Line found a slot in the Horizons sidebar, before cementing his name in 2009 with The Mouth of the Wolf (awarded the top prize at the Turin Film Festival, Italy’s David di Donatello and Nastro d’Argento awards for best documentary, and the Berlinale’s Caligary and Teddy Bear prizes). Eight years since his 2011 documentary The Silence of Pelesjan world premiered on the Lido—again in the Horizons program—and four since his 2015 docufiction hybrid Lost and Beautiful, he’s returned to Venice as one of the three Italians in the year’s competition.

But unlike the mafia-themed features by Mario Martone (The Mayor of Rione Sanità) and Franco Maresco (The Mafia Is No Longer What It Used to Be), Martin Eden is a far more singular, sui generis offering. Co-authored by the director and Maurizio Braucci, and based on Jack London’s 1909 novel by the same name, Martin Eden follows a young unschooled sailor who writes his way into the elite, and upon turning into the revered writer he long craved to be, struggles to square the success with his low-born roots and the political ideals he’s sacrificed along the way. London set his novel in Oakland, California; Marcello moves the action to Naples, and recruits Luca Marinelli as lead. As it turns out, both choices work superbly.

Marinelli imbues Martin with an unbridled charisma; even as Marcello pauses to delve into the political and theoretical subtext underpinning the novel (and film), his towering performance and raw energy offer some respite from the more heavy-handed intellectual ruminations. Ostensibly set in the early twentieth century, the Naples his Martin saunters into seems to jut out of time, a mosaic of different eras. Andrea Cavalletto’s costumes harken back to the 1930s (or later decades, depending on the looks of the locales curated by production designers Roberto De Angelis and Luca Servino), while the technology hints to the 1950s. As per usual in Marcello’s oeuvre, archival footage abounds, old glimpses of the city here seamlessly integrated in Francesco Di Giacomo and Alessandro Abate’s 16mm cinematography. A portrait of a writer-cum-militant swells into a larger canvas of a community heading straight into the abyss. But in Marcello’s lyrical and anachronistic world, the lurking crisis feel unnervingly close: that perturbing, disorienting vividness may well be Martin Eden’s crowning glory.

Late in the afternoon and away from the scorching sun, I take a seat next to Marcello, and over coffee, we begin to chat.  

NOTEBOOK: I was quite struck by the timing of your project. London had published his novel in 1909… 

PIETRO MARCELLO: …and we turned it into a film 110 years later! [Laughs.] I know, it’s quite a coincidence. But I’d been quite familiar with the story for a while already. The book was first gifted to me by [co-script writer] Maurizio Braucci, one of my closest friends. He’d read it twenty years ago, and asked me to do the same. He was convinced I’d like it just as much. And so, twenty years later, we turned it into a script. As you can imagine, we had to grapple with all sorts of dilemmas. What on earth were we going to do with a book like that? Neither of us came from the Anglo-Saxon world. We don’t belong to that culture, to the writings of Conrad, Stevenson, Melville—to their kind of literature. Which is why we thought: let’s make Martin a Latin hero. After all, Eden is an archetype, much like Faust and Hamlet. It’s a simple story. A poor, young lad emancipates himself through culture, and becomes a man, propelled by this desire to rise up the social ladder—until he turns into a victim of the culture industry, so to speak. And the tale rings quite close to London’s own. If you think about his life, Jack London was among the first victims of the mass culture industry. On top of all that, we also found the novel to be very timely. London predicted the disasters that would unfold in the aftermath of the First World War: the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, and the like... And now we live in a world where the presence of fascism is almost taken as a given. We seem to have really gone back 100 years. You walk down the street, and you hear people talk about fascism as if it were the most normal thing in the world…

NOTEBOOK: I was wondering if there was also some form of personal identification between you and Martin Eden. I’m thinking about the way you often stress your DIY credentials, how you essentially taught yourself filmmaking…

MARCELLO: Well, Martin Eden is the self-taught folks’ novel. And I think the text is really emblematic for all DIY creatives out there. I’m a self-taught myself, and proud to be one. I may not have gone to film school, but I know my cinema, and if people ask me to talk about the movies I love I can go on for hours. I watched films, and learned how to do the little I do that way. That, and through my work as documentarian. It was by making documentaries that I learned the ropes, in the streets, teaching myself how to deal with the unforeseen and unpredictable elements of cinema. Now, in the case of Martin Eden I also served as producer, so I was sort of juggling many roles at once. I had to think about directing, production, and so on. Sure, the budget was larger, but it was still a wild bet, still a brave path we decided to embark on. And it was carried out in this idyllic state of grace: we were a commune of people working together, supporting the film and each other along the way.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of brave things, I think the decision to stage London’s tale in Naples ought to count as one. And it works; I for one was mesmerized by the all the buzz, the colors, the sounds and smells of the city. It felt like a tactile portrait, so to speak—something alive, breathing. Yet I recall you saying that the Naples in the film “could be any city, anywhere in the world.”

MARCELLO: That’s right.

NOTEBOOK: Which sounded somewhat odd. The whole film feels so faithful, so loyal to its settings—almost like a valentine to the city.

MARCELLO: We brought this story to Naples because it’s a very tolerant city. I made my first few films there, so it felt like being at home, somehow. I was surrounded by all my dearest friends, and people who joined in to help bring this film into the world. Naples is a port city, and as such, it’s the kind of place that’s welcomed all sorts of men and women, sons and daughters of their eras. And that’s what happened to our Martin: a European, Italian, Latin hero, a child of the Mediterranean, the Mare Nostrum that washes him ashore, and into which he returns.

NOTEBOOK: There’s also a peculiar relationship with time. Your Naples seems to straddle past and future: there are elements that suggest a whole array of eras. It reminded me of the kind of temporal ambiguity you have in Christian Petzold’s Transit. Have you seen it?

MARCELLO: Not yet.  

NOTEBOOK: It’s a Holocaust drama set in present-day Marseilles, so you hear people talk about fleeing the concentration camps as they run around late 2010s France. It’s a bold choice, and works terrifically, for the drama feels unnervingly close, and vivid.

MARCELLO: Sounds like the sort of experiments Peter Watkins did in La Commune (Paris 1871)! Look, I like my cinema to remain anchored to the moral questions I constantly ask myself, such as the role we play in the time we live in, and what our needs should be in this particular moment in history. I think Martin Eden came about as the natural evolution of the films I did before. I may have had a bigger budget, but the instruments I used here are the same I used in previous works. I reckon that writing for the screen is always, by definition, somewhat incomplete, because you have to factor in the way your script will eventually morph into images. And that’s always subject to change. As for our own production, things on set would be trapped in this constant state of flux. Locations would not be ready, or someone would mess things up, and you’d have to dash and fix them. But that’s what cinema is like. And I like to think I brought many Martin Edens on set, and had many versions in my hands inside the editing room. But now the film is no longer mine. It’s become this collective object, and I’ve turned into a spectator myself. Sometimes I wish I could become a ghost, disappear and pop up again inside cinemas, just to see what that would feel like… [laughs].

NOTEBOOK: This is a Künstlerroman that’s very steeped in its political subtext. As well as a struggling writer, Martin is also a young man navigating the politics of his time.  

MARCELLO: Absolutely. And the film’s political turf is very timely, too. You have people arguing and fighting over topics that ring very contemporary: neoliberalism, fascism, populism…

NOTEBOOK: I was wondering how much time you spent into trying to flash out that political subtext while working on the script.

MARCELLO: Well, I think I should stress that Maurizio Braucci headed the writing process; he’s terrific. As for me, I want my cinema to be somewhat necessary. By that I mean, I need to find and stay focussed on what makes my projects necessary, and keep filming toward that goal. Otherwise I’d rather go teach, surround myself with kids and teenagers, and devote myself entirely to education… which may well be the single most important thing one can do in this day and age! [Laughs.] But really, as time goes by, I feel this urge to remain anchored to what’s necessary grow stronger. You know, you get older, you become a lot more self-critical, and so on. But I do think that in this particular moment in history, we ought to look out for what’s necessary in everything we do. Because we live in a society that’s increasingly hedonistic and narcissistic. Which makes us grow apart, more polarized. This is nothing new: Christopher Lasch and Guy Debord already predicted all this in the 1970s.

NOTEBOOK: You started off as a documentarian, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on what you were saying earlier: the teachings the medium gave you, and how it helped you in your fiction projects, too.

MARCELLO: Well, when you go out and shoot documentaries you know you won’t be able to have much time or flexibility in your hands. You can’t expect to go back home, and write, and have everything pan out the way you want it to. You have to be able to face all circumstances. That’s what shapes the kind of filmmaker you’ll be. I think documentary is just one of the many instruments of cinema, and it’s up to you to put that instrument to good use. And I couldn’t be any more grateful for all the skills it taught me - the ability to face and deal with the unexpected, for one thing. Which is why I was saying that I see writing for film as something that’s necessarily incomplete, because it can never truly capture the way the script will shape up on the screen. And I think if you look at Martin Eden from an Anglo-Saxon perspective, if you pit it against the apparatus of industrial cinema dictating how your traditional historical drama should feel and look like—the structure it should adhere to, and just how steeped in history it should be—then Martin Eden can be attacked on all fronts. I’m no structuralist; I really dislike the type of writing structuralists embrace. It’s just not part of my culture. It’s much more of an American tradition. And when I think that so many Italian script writers work with U.S. manuals… I find it a little ridiculous [chuckles]. But it makes sense: we all belong to an industry that dictates its own rules.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of writing, I was wondering if you looked at older works that tackled London’s novel as you began to work your own. I’m thinking of that 1942 film with Glenn Ford, and the TV adaptations by the Germans, the French…

MARCELLO: …and the Russians. In the 1970s. Of course.

NOTEBOOK: What did you make of them?  

MARCELLO: I liked the Russian version better! I remember loving the performances. That, and it also just belonged to the kind of cinema I love, and studied a great deal. But I don’t really have models. I don’t think we should have them, honestly. At least that’s what Robert Bresson taught us in his Notes on the Cinematographer. It’s far better to make mistakes on your own, and let influences grow naturally, through the films that enriched us, and made us better cineastes. Of course, I did my fair share of iconographic research, but this is the film I put together in the end. My own ideals and expectations were quite different, before shooting began, and then circumstances just naturally changed the way things developed. Again, that’s what I mean by writing as an incomplete activity. There have been very few filmmakers who possessed a clear, total control over their writing. But I like to think that films ought to be imperfect, in a way. Because at the end of the day, what do we take home from a film? Some sequences, moments… that’s their real magic.  

NOTEBOOK: Part of the magic in your film was this seamless insertion of archival footage of the city. Sometimes they merge so well with your red and blue period tonalities it’s difficult to tell them apart.

MARCELLO: Oh, I always worked with archives. All my films feature some archival footage, however small or large their budgets. So really, the inclusion of those old snippets in Martin Eden is nothing but the natural continuation of what I did in previous works.  

NOTEBOOK: But where did the ones you inserted here come from? 

MARCELLO: Alessia Petitto worked on the archives. She’s extraordinary. Mind you, the film begins with some images of Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta, who was our own Lenin, if you will. He was the leader of what you may refer to as “ethical voluntarism,” which began developing in the early twentieth century. The father of Italian anarchism. We were talking earlier about Martin Eden as an ambiguous figure, a negative hero—and having Malatesta in the preamble was crucial for me. Plus, he comes from my own turf, and I am very big fan of his.

NOTEBOOK: Yours is a film of dichotomies—rich versus poor, elite versus proletariat, periphery versus city centre—and I was really fascinated by the way you celebrated the other, ostensibly poorer side of town, giving it back its dignity and beauty. You could tell there was a lot of humanism in the way you went about depicting the outskirts of Naples.

MARCELLO: I don’t know… [pauses]. I guess I’m the last person to ask about some judgement of my work. I have questions I like to keep asking myself, and which inform my work. I go through a lot of self-criticism, which I hope will help me to emancipate myself, and become a better man. But it’s difficult to say much more than that. All I can tell you is that I try not to betray my mission, which is: to make a cinema that registers as necessary, not the kind of cinema that obeys this or that monetary goal. I think cinema could have reached far higher heights, which probably accounts for the debate over whether this is or isn’t the seventh art—it may have fallen a few steps short of becoming it, perhaps. That’s why I think I feel closer to an artisan than anything else. After all, cinema was a fortuitous and fortunate plan B for me…

NOTEBOOK: I remember reading you wanted to become a painter.

MARCELLO: That’s right. And cinema is a spurious art, come to think of it. As in, an art that’s the summation of different others. I think one of the most beautiful things on that front is the interplay between cinema and painting. But I fear we may have lost that. If you really want to become a good director you need to know your art history, as a way to inform your shot composition. At any rate, that used to be the case in the past. Not anymore. People keep banging on about 4K, 10K, and whatever… but how does that help you with your shot composition?

NOTEBOOK: How did the collaboration with Luca Marinelli come about?

MARCELLO: His name and Carlo Cecchi’s were the first to come to mind. I needed a strong thespian; a histrionic, chameleonic actor. After all, this is the journey of a transformation: we start with a poor sailor, a stray boy, who finds some sort of emancipation through culture, and eventually becomes this illustrious, revered writer. And of course, being the script this necessarily incomplete piece of work, we would write, and experiment a little, and I would work on the dialogues with Luca and the rest of the cast. I felt it was crucial for me to bring the story to them, and to transform the script together. It’s almost inevitable. And as I’m used to work with unexpected changes and twists, I thought I was the right man for the job [chuckles]. But really, working with Luca was a great joy. Remember I had to wear many hats—the director’s, producer’s... and you can only imagine the amount of issues I had to deal with. But I think what’s most incredible about Martin Eden is that the project gave us all a chance to experiment together. It was a massive bet. And finding ourselves here is a great victory for us already. Now it’s up to the audience to tell us what they think.

NOTEBOOK: Is there anyone in particular you’d like to reach with this film?

MARCELLO: I wish I could take Martin Eden to schools. Show it to students. I think they need to see a tale like this. Because it’s very hard to remain optimistic in the era we live in, where modernity keeps us so apart. We have to return to a sense of community to truly propel social change. To start from minorities. From the youth. We may not be many, at first, but it’d be a good place to start. 

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