Martin Eden (a magnetic Luca Marinelli) is a lunch guest at the lavish Orsini estate. The family want to thank him for saving their youngest son, Arturo (Giustiniano Alpi), from a street fight. Here he meets and falls for their refined, arty daughter Elena (Jessica Cressy). A sailor by trade, Martin is a voracious reader with no formal schooling. Over pasta, he boldly suggests that poverty might be mopped up with education like sauce with a bread roll. Elena gives him books, and encourages him to start writing.
The Italian film-maker Pietro Marcello takes Jack London’s 1909 novel, which is set in Oakland, California, and transposes its Faustian fable of an aspiring working-class writer to postwar Italy and the port city of Naples. The time period is fuzzy and deliberately anachronistic: cars and costumes suggest the 1950s, but there are colour TVs, and the soundtrack features Italo disco . Documentary archive footage of socialist rallies and dreamlike inserts of Martin’s impoverished childhood interrupt our protagonist’s upward trajectory. They suggest class is something to betray rather than transcend.
The film traces Martin’s love affair with the pursuit of individual advancement. Like capitalism, it’s seductive. If writing is a democratic art and social leveller, Marcello indicts the celebrity author as a sellout, steamrolling their way to success. By the time Martin gets there, in the film’s third act, he’s lost everything else. Marinelli plays him as a washed-up, bleached-blond rock star, rotting in his castle.