Considering that until fairly recently the Italian filmmaker Pietro Marcello was known as one of the more intriguing voices in contemporary documentary, it comes as some surprise to see him following up his acclaimed fiction debut, the almost unbearably pretty pastoral Lost and Beautiful (2015), with a literary adaptation—especially one from a novel by Jack London. That 1909 novel—somewhat buried beneath the reputations of London’s better known works—is set in Oakland, California, and captured the journey of self-realization of a rough-and-tumble sailor from being a wannabe writer to a smash literary success to, ultimately, a disillusioned, embittered, and potentially dangerous ideologue.
Class struggle has always been present in Marcello’s work, and it becomes clear rather quickly that Martin Eden (2019) marks his most headlong investigation into the politics of the 20th century and how they relate to our convulsive, confounding present. Marcello transposes London’s story to a Campania that never was, the setting (captured vividly on Marcello’s usual 16mm) a timeless composite of anachronistic motifs and the odd snatch of archival footage that cohere to give us the sense not so much of taking in a period piece as beholding History itself.
In Marcello’s Martin Eden, which had its world premiere in competition at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival and will receive its US release when movie theaters reopen, the titular protagonist (incarnated by a brilliant Luca Marinelli) is again a prole who wants to become a famous writer, though here his endgame finds him turning into something more like a sickly fascist than a mere holdout against bourgeois hegemony. Marcello’s game—as intellectual as it is sensuous—becomes clear by the film’s end, and it’s difficult to play it and not reflect on history’s cyclical contortions, the illusion of social progress concealing the enduring danger of violently right-wing thought. In his hands, a political novel about the United States in 1909 by the author of The Call of the Wild (1903) winds up being a wholly absorbing political parable about Europe in the here-and-now, a feat that demands attention, respect and thought, and solidifies Marcello as one of contemporary cinema’s great self-made artists.
I had the great pleasure of sitting down with him last October during the 2019 New York Film Festival, where Martin Eden was featured in the festival’s main slate, to discuss his way of working, his relationship with London’s writing, and cinema’s relation to political thinking.
Dan Sullivan (Rail): Have you seen any of the other film adaptations of Martin Eden?
Pietro Marcello: Yeah, I saw the Russian one, the American one. The Russian one was good because it had a really good actor, but it’s a static theatrical adaptation and it’s very faithful to the book.
Rail: When did you first encounter the novel? Did you already have a relationship with Jack London's writing?
Marcello: I used to read many of his books. My screenwriter, Maurizio Braucci, who is my best friend, gave Martin Eden to me when I was 20 years old, and he told me, “Maybe you'll like this book.” After 20 years we decided to make Martin Eden together.
Rail: Martin Eden is relatively obscure here and so making a film of it reminds me a bit of when Léos Carax adapted Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852) as Pola X (1999), which is of course not the best-known Herman Melville novel. Did you have some sense of the history of the novel's perception?
Marcello: I don't have models. Like Bresson said, we should never have a model. I am definitely a cinephile, that's my education. I’m very familiar with Russian films and film history and with European cinema, less so with American cinema. But, having said that, I don't really have models. We risked a lot when making this movie. My version of Martin Eden is very European, very Italian, very Neapolitan, and our work is a free transposition of the book. In my experience we don't have the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean or authors such as Connor or Stevenson or Melville, we have Pasolini. Our sea is the Mediterranean, our Martin Eden is one of the country, a rural one, and so our version was a free version. Martin Eden is an archetype to me. Having said that, in terms of Jack London, the socialist part of his writing was very popular in Europe, The Iron Heel (1908) was very well known whereas in America people are more familiar with White Fang (1906), The Call of the Wild, the adventure side of what he did.
Rail: You don’t just relocate the narrative geographically, you also move it into this kind of deliberately ambiguous historical setting. Could you tell me a bit about how you generated that ambiguity?
Marcello: For me the transposition made him not only very European but also very Italian and an archetype, an archetype in the same way that Faust or Hamlet are. We remained very faithful to the novel in terms of the content. The one thing is that instead of Herbert Spencer it probably should've been Georges Sorel, because he was closely related to the birth of the fascism of the Italian trade union movement. However, what matters is that Martin Eden is an archetype of a young boy who evolves into a man and has an experience of social redemption, and in the end becomes a victim of the cultural industry. The same way that Jack London himself had become a victim of the literary world, I believe he was the first victim of the modern culture industry.
Rail: Spencer is still associated with capitalist individualism today.
Marcello: Jack London was very fascinated by Herbert Spencer. Spencer was a good biologist but he wrote some horrible things. Sovereignists are fascinated by him, and there are still some promoting him today. Jack London depicts in Martin Eden, with very dark tones, what his vision for the rest of the century would be. It was a disaster, the disaster of the 20th century. Who would've imagined 40 years ago that we would be experiencing Brexit or talking about leaders such as Viktor Orbán, Jonas Savimbi, or Trump. A divided era and a resurgence of fascism—we would've thought that after the end of World War II, after everything that that should have taught us, all of this should have been confined to the past, but it's not. And in 2019 all the lessons of the 20th century (the short century) have been forgotten. We’re not there yet, social injustice is ever present, the economy is in the hands of the few, poverty is growing, and all of the struggles of the 21st century to promote social equality have not led us anywhere. The movie begins with Errico Malatesta. It was very important for me to have him at the beginning of the film because Malatesta was a leader in the anarcho-communist movement in Italy which was ethical and voluntary. I think there is individualism with and without socialism, but only in anarchy this idea of individualism remains uncontested, and if individualism remains uncontested, then it becomes barbarism. I wanted to have Malatesta for that point of view.
Rail: I’m curious about the connection between some of the political thinking in the film and the present-day political situation in Italy.
Marcello: Martin Eden is a film that is not loved by the former communists who have failed. It’s a movie that is generally not loved by anyone who has failed, because he’s somebody that lashes out against everybody and anybody: the fascists, the communists, the socialists, the journalists, and the media. In the first part, as viewers, we feel closer to him, whereas in the second part he becomes an antihero, and it leads to a situation that Christopher Lasch had already described in the 1970s, the culture of the media and of influencers, the complete confusion amid which it’s hard to find one’s place. And Martin is a victim of the cultural industry because he no longer has any relationship with reality. In the first part, he does, but he is challenging everybody. He’s against everything.
There is a moment in the film when there is a dinner that begins with the family prayer. Martin tells us straight out, you say you love socialism, but then you end up giving your ass to capitalism. Which is what everybody is doing. Socialism, that’s very simple, it’s something we could do in this room, a group of people getting together and sharing something. But then people end up accepting compromises, just like the “radical chic” and “limousine liberal” types do.
Rail: To go backwards a bit, you’ve indicated that some aspects of the production were quite challenging, given that you were one of the film’s producers.
Marcello: As with all my films. I don’t want to produce anymore.
Rail: You might disagree, but Martin Eden is perhaps the largest and most ambitious film you’ve made to date.
Marcello: Yeah, because I made films out of nothing in the past. It was a good time for me. And then when it became industrial, I didn’t like it anymore. Because I don’t think the cinema is selling art. There is the economy underneath it. And I prefer to make 12 films with low budgets where I’m completely in control. I’m the cinematographer and editor, too. I love to make films. I love to have a relationship with the archive and to work on the editing point-counterpoint. But anyway, it’s complicated. It was an ambitious film then. I don’t know, maybe I prefer to say it’s an imperfect film. We’re looking for something inside. We’re never living within our comfort zones, we’re always pushed to our limits.
Rail: And it’s kind of a heroic gesture, having your largest film be so political. Because usually it’s the reverse, usually when people make these bigger, more ambitious films, they become less political because it’s easier to get financing and so on.
Marcello: It should have been longer. I would’ve needed more money, more help, more of a structure around. It was challenging. Time will decide what will become of this film.
Rail: Given all the various functions that you had to serve during the production, I’m interested in your collaboration with your co-writer, Maurizio Braucci.
Marcello: Maurizio is like a brother to me. We grew up together, we did political activism work together. He is a writer who is on loan to cinema, so to speak. We studied situations together; we did political studies together. Our coming of age was together. But the way we focus on our work is that we look at what’s outside of us. We look at the world around us. I tend to divide writers into two large classes. On the one hand you have writers who focus on themselves, and then on the other hand you have writers that focus on the world around them. Hemingway was an example of this second class, and I tend to feel much closer to writers that talk about the world, like Maurizio. I hope that we can continue working together for a long time.
Rail: So if you’re doing so many things more or less simultaneously, then how does the collaboration proceed with the lead actors in the film, Luca Marinelli and Jessica Cressy? I just want to know about how you work with all the actors, as the performances are quite remarkable.
Marcello: Well, let’s say that this is a movie that was made “all in the family,” so to speak, and I like that kind of atmosphere. I like when we’re all together. Something that saves me, that has this redeeming aspect for me, is that I come from documentary and therefore I’m used to dealing with unexpected events. My method is a Rossellini-like one. I’m used to working that way. I don’t believe in sticking to the way a text was written because the written word is, by its own definition, imperfect. Words are incomplete and they need to be betrayed. This happens also when I scout for locations. I have something in mind, but then maybe it can’t be found and therefore we adapt. Dialogues are changed and the structure of the film changes as well.
Rail: So then do you rehearse much with them, or do you minimize rehearsal to increase the likelihood of chance events entering the film?
Marcello: I like to spend time with my actors. I like to spend time talking, reading books, sharing ideas. When I arrive on set my attitude is to change the scene, the dialogue, and everything with them. I like the idea of surprising them. Surprising them, but always following them, and never leaving them alone. And they need me handling the camera. If I handle the camera, then they work well. With Marinelli, there were some scenes where it was just me, him and a sound guy. The rest of the crew was 50 people. I would just send them away and the three of us would just work. I like the idea of intimacy. And cinema doesn’t allow that. In a certain way, cinema is something that is very superficially fun-loving. It’s not noble, the way theater is. And there’s still a world that is unknown within cinema that needs to be explored, experimented with.
Rail: Would you say that you conceptualize your practice in opposition to the dominant mode of filmmaking in Italy (though it’s not too different in other European countries)? Do you see this as a situation with directors like yourself and Alice Rohrwacher working outside of or near the margins of mainstream Italian cinema in a way which then contaminates the mainstream and then, suddenly, those films might steal something from you?
Marcello: I like making movies. I love making movies. I love working with film, developing film, having fun with it, and I am rewarded by the social component of my filmmaking. I do what I do because I have a necessity to do it and I don’t even think about what comes out of it because I’m not competitive. I don’t think whether this can be a model or not. I do it because I need to do it and I want to find a meaning in it and I want to see if there’s a social component to what I’m doing and I don’t worry about whether it’s right or wrong. I do it because it’s a necessity and I need to try to do it. So, with what you were saying, if in maybe 10 years time, my approach will have an impact on mainstream Italian filmmaking, well, it’s too much of a stretch for me. I would be flattered, but I don’t see it that way.
Rail: But as far as it being far-fetched, I think about Bernie Sanders in the United States. If you had told me 10 years ago that one of the prime candidates for the presidency would be a Jewish self-identified democratic socialist, I wouldn’t have believed you!
Marcello: Yeah, but the kibbutz is a socialist state. Socialism is what we can do in this room.
Rail: Things can change very drastically, very quickly.
Marcello: It’s the collapse. Europe is a disaster now because we are completely divided. It was absurd 50 years ago to think about Europe being completely divided. It’s Brexit. It scares Europe absolutely.
Rail: The film was released in Italy not long after the Venice International Film Festival, right? The beginning of September—
Marcello: The level of success—for me, it’s a great outcome.
Rail: But was there anything that intrigued or surprised you about the reception, specifically in Italy? Because the international reception has been very strong, people seem to understand this is a major film.
Marcello: It’s a very divisive movie. The problem is when the older generation find themselves in the movie, they feel that they have betrayed their mandate. I think it’s a movie that’s more for young people, they can understand it better. And my objective would be to take it to schools because in a certain sense Martin Eden is a bildungsroman. I don’t know how old you are, but whenever you see interviews, it’s always older people that are being interviewed. Nobody ever interviews kids or young people asking them how they feel about this or that.