Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
More movie happenings with tie-ins to local theaters. At the Northwest Film Forum, they’re offering a program that features former NWFF publicity director Adam Hart presenting “George A. Romero Rarities,” which sounds like a survey of stuff gathered at the Romero archive at the University of Pittsburgh. https://nwfilmforum.org/events/george-romero-rarities-with-adam-hart-online/
SIFF will revenue-share with the blistering new Alex Gibney documentary, Totally Under Control, which looks at the Trump administration’s mishandling of the pandemic. I’m not reviewing this one, but it is essential viewing, even if we have all just lived through it; the information is dynamically organized, and some of the talking heads are memorable. (It’s so up-to-date it includes Trump’s hospitalization for the coronavirus.) https://www.siff.net/virtual/virtual-siff-cinema/totally-under-control
There’s also a way to watch Martin Eden, “opening” today, that benefits SIFF. That one I’ll review.
Jack London’s novel, published in 1909, is a very compelling thing, a raw-boned American story about a seafarin’ man who seeks to turn himself into a great writer. There’s a lot of politics mixed in, and a rather amazing ending for a first-person narrative. That Martin Eden has been made into an Italian film is a fascinating proposition, but it also gives me pause about this otherwise dreamy and engaging movie.
My pause: Does this very American story really fit neatly into the culture of Old Europe? Well, maybe. But I have to hesitate before saying “Old Europe,” because whatever that might mean, director Pietro Marcello is playing games with the specificity of time. It sort of looks and feels like the 1970s, but silent-movie footage suggests the ’20s, and there are references to a big war in which Italy is about to participate. Martin (played by rangy, eager Luca Marinelli) accidentally comes into the orbit of a wealthy upper-class family after he rescues their son from a beating. They have copies of Beaudelaire in the foyer (Martin takes one look and never stops inhaling books), they have Impressionist paintings (“Looks smudgy up close,” observes our puzzled protagonist), and most of all they have a daughter (Jessica Cressy) who radiates klass with a capital K.
Martin resolves to become a successful writer in order to qualify for her hand, and some of the movie’s most ingratiating scenes have him renting a room from a farm family and attracting publishers’ rejection letters. The occasion of a first sale is always a prized moment in this kind of rising-artist story, and this one doesn’t disappoint—”The road is clear!” Martin cries from a sickbed. Through at least the first half of the film, the momentum is strong, Marinelli’s performance completely embraces the character (Martin is sometimes thoughtful, sometimes foolish, and generally blunt), and Marcello intriguingly mixes in historical footage to fill out the imaginary historical context.
It’s a wonderful movie to look at, evidently shot in 16 mm., with soft, warm colors. The soundtrack is interesting, too, with the occasional dippy Euro-pop song punctuating the air. I think Marcello struggles in the second half of the picture, which requires a sudden large time-shift, plus a measure of disillusionment. And I wish the two women in Martin’s romantic life were stronger (the wonderfully-named Denise Sardisco plays a girl from the lower classes, abandoned by Martin after his whiff of the finer things); neither actress can stand up to Marinelli’s brawny movie-star presence. In the end I wanted to like Martin Eden more than I actually did, but a lot of it is enthralling, and if we graded movies sheerly according to their texture—which maybe we should—it qualifies as a must-see.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.