Carlo Cecchi and Luca Marinelli in Martin Eden (courtesy of Kino Lorber)
Italian director Pietro Marcello has been making films since 2003, but his turn to feature films – first with Lost & Beautiful in 2015 and now with Martin Eden, an adaptation of Jack London's 1909 novel – has won him new admirers outside of his home country and the United States introduced festival circuit. So it is fitting that as his star is rising, he wrote a cautionary story about the dangers of individualism and the ease with which he can swallow even the most idealistic artist.
But Marcello's adaptation is far from easy. His Martin Eden is set in Naples at an unspecified time and is rich in cultural details, from Neapolitan folk music to archival material and recordings from Marcello's earlier films that serve as narrative flashbacks, but also insights into 20th century Italian life enable. it tells a story with worldwide resonance. Her story is about the gradual dissolution of left politics over the course of the century and its replacement by megalomaniac individualism.
Before a screening at the New York Film Festival, Marcello and the filmmaker, assisted by a translator, spoke about the risks he had taken in adapting the film, the simultaneous stagnation and the promise of a political cinema, his relationship with Soviet film, and the problems and problems with rewards for producing his own film. Martin Eden is out of the Lorber cinema this Friday.
Filmmaker: What was your inspiration for the Jack London novel Martin Eden?
Marcello: Because I think he's a very contemporary figure, just like Hamlet or Faust. It is very timely and very important to me to serve as the protagonist of the story. In my script, I wanted Martin Eden to cover the entire 20th century, the "short century". My co-screenwriter Maurizio Braucci gave me the book 20 years ago, and 20 years later we decided it was time for us to do it.
Filmmaker: Did your growing stature in the non-Italian cinephile world help you decide that now was the right time?
Marcello: No. Martin Eden is a negative character, not only to me, but also in Jack London's version. We tend to love the first part, when Martin Eden redeems himself through education, through culture, as a young man who becomes a full-fledged man, but in the end is a victim of himself, of his own individualism. It's very modern in that it's the result of what we would call influencer culture today: hedonism, narcissism. Nobody loves Martin Eden in the second part, he is a negative character. In the book, he was the result of being deeply rooted in the 19th century, while we wanted this character through the 20th century. We wanted to make a political film about the 20th century up to the present day.
Filmmaker: The period of the film is deliberately indefinite. How did you choose this vagueness?
Marcello: I didn't want to stay in my comfort zone. I had the opportunity to experiment and I could do that because we produced it ourselves. But we wanted to create the story of this character who has this path that leads him to a rise and fall. And at the very end it sinks deep, just like the ship in the archive footage. So this is a metaphor for 20th century history as such. That is exactly what has happened over the century. In the film, the use of archive footage allowed me to be more free and the archive footage allowed me to introduce flashbacks about the life of (Martin Eden) and talk about his short stories, but also about what was going on in my country and in my country happened to Europe. This Martin Eden is a very southern European Martin Eden, very different from Martin Eden from Jack London. In the US, you know Jack London's adventure books or the struggle for life in general better. Jack London was a socialist, however, and was known as such in Europe and Britain, Russia and Germany and France, and Italy. His socialist books like Martin Eden were much more popular than in this country. In Martin Eden, this young man redeems himself socially through education and culture, but in the end he commits suicide. Perhaps this would not be viewed so favorably in the US, and that could be a reason the novel was not too popular in that country.
Filmmaker: You mentioned that you produced the film yourself and this was a bigger budget production too. How did these things affect your filming method?
Marcello: Negative because it was very difficult for me to produce and I don't want to do it anymore. But I know that next time I'll do the same so I don't know what to say. I learned that I like to be a DP and an editor and focus on the cinema.
Filmmaker: In both Mouth of the Wolf (2009) and Lost & Beautiful, there were things that happened during production that changed the film. How close was your Martin Eden to what you originally planned?
Marcello: It was different because there were actors, but maybe here, if we had a bigger budget, if I had more money … it's a bit shaky like a movie. And it's a bit of an expressionist film. In its imperfections, however, we searched for soul. It had to be a game between popular and experimental cinema. We wanted to bring a different way of making films to mainstream theaters.
Filmmaker: In that sense, it reminds me a little of Pasolini's idea of contamination, and I know that Maurizio Braucci (Abel) wrote Ferrara's Pasolini (2014). (Marcello shakes his head) No?
Marcello: You shouldn't have models. Bresson always said that. But I'm a cinephile like you, so we can talk about it. To some extent, the influence has been the style of filmmaking known as Italian Pink Neorealism and all those films where everyone cries all the time. There is also a profound influence of my studies in Soviet film on counterpoint editing style.
Filmmaker: Yes, I specifically wanted to ask about (Artavazd) Peleshian, who you made a documentary about, and maybe Kira Muratova and Getting to Know the Big Wide World (1980) which seems to have influenced some of your colors and compositions.
Marcello: Yes, because I love this Kira Muratova film. But via Peleshian, it's Mikhail Romm's school instead. There was this idea of pink neorealism in the popular part of the film, but the editing and counterpoint are very important and may have had an impact on the school of Mikhail Romm, a great master – for (Marlen) Khutsiev, (Elem) Klimov, (Andrei ) Konchalovsky and many of them, almost like a Soviet Rossellini. Peleshian was the one who theorized distance montage, but he didn't have much to do with this particular film, despite being well known in Italian documentaries.
Filmmaker: In the film, you use 35mm for the boat, 16mm for most of the film, archival footage, expired stocks, you re-color a lot … how did you decide to bring this overall?
Marcello: I like to mix everything together. I don't have the budget to make the 35mm and academy format film. I've restored a lot of material, colored a lot of material, but I've used all of the material in total and I like the idea of a single unit that includes all of this.
Filmmaker: Why did you colorize some archive footage?
Marcello: To ensure chromatic continuity. I hope that someday Kodak will give me lots of film as a gift for all of my troubles.
Filmmaker: Whenever we talk about the role of art in the world I think we need to talk about the Soviets, but we are now in a post-Soviet world. How do you see the relationship between art and politics today compared to what it could have been in the 20th century?
Marcello: The difference between us and them is that they made cinema without profit, only for the citizens. I believe that cinema is still a very powerful tool, but the invention of sound only harmed cinema. After that, you had the dictatorships – Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler – that they used as propaganda. Cinema did not have a natural evolution in terms of its finances. After that it was just entertainment. To some extent, what the surrealists said is true and that is that people go to the cinema to steal emotions that are negated in daily life. Still, cinema today is a powerful tool that has remained unexplored and has a lot of room for development.
Filmmaker: What kind of development?
Marcello: I don't know, but I think that the audience needs to be educated about cinema. I think too often the power rests with the culture industry and the middlemen who decide what is shown and what is not.
Filmmaker: And that's Martin Eden. It shows how the culture industry tends to turn art into an aristocratic or bourgeois toy, and your film shows what happens to even a very idealistic person who is drawn into this industry.
Marcello: Exactly, you are absolutely right and nobody has made this observation yet. That's what the movie is about. And Jack London's life was an example of that too. Jack London was the first victim of the modern cultural or literary industry.
Filmmaker: Shift gears, can you talk a little about the music choices? They have everything from French and Italian pop music to classical music.
Marcello: At the beginning of the film we have Neapolitan pop music, simple music, and our main character is still simple and naive. As the character evolves, so does the music. He studies, he trains himself so that music becomes classical music. The music evolves just like the character. It ranges from popular music as a young man to cultivated, sophisticated music. I like to mix high and low.
Filmmaker: How did your training as a painter and your work as a documentary filmmaker contribute to film?
Marcello: Always in terms of composition. There used to be the idea that if a filmmaker was learning about composition, he had to be knowledgeable about learning art history, while filmmakers now only focus on 4K, 8K, 10K but forget about composition. For me, composition is everything.
Filmmaker: Does that have anything to do with your decision to shoot digitally on film?
Marcello: I've always shot on film, but I'm not against digital as long as you can shoot and compose. The problem is that the DPs don't study art history. There was a very close relationship between painting, art history, composition and cinematography, and now they only focus on 2K and 4K, not composition.
Filmmaker: Has a particular art school influenced your compositions?
Marcello: I love art history as a whole and the problem with cinema is often that I do a lot of research on images and have them in my head, but then I can't include any of them for budget reasons. I research for three years to find something and I have something very clear in mind, but then I can't apply it so I can adjust to what I have and the resources available to me.