Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
Italy/France/Germany, 2019. Avventurosa, IBC Movie, Rai Cinema, Shellac Sud, Match Factory Productions, Bayerischer Rundfunk, ARTE, Ministero per I Beni e le Attivita Culturali, Centre National du Cinema et de L’Image Animee, Regione Campania, Film Commission Regione Campania, Regione Lazio, L’Aide aux Cinemas du Monde, Mitteldeutsche Medienforderung. Screenplay by Maurizio Braucci, Pietro Marcello, based on the novel by Jack London. Cinematography by Alessandro Abate, Francesco Di Giacomo. Produced by Beppe Caschetto, Viola Fugen, Pietro Marcello, Thomas Ordonneau, Michael Weber. Music by Paolo Marzocchi, Marco Messina, Sacha Ricci. Production Design by Roberto De Angelis, Luca Servino. Costume Design by Andrea Cavalletto. Film Editing by Fabrizio Federico, Aline Hervé.
Jack London’s 1909 novel is transported from turn of the century California to Naples some time in the forties, the period is deliberately made unclear and is rendered by a retro-seventies vibe to the grainy filmstock, as if director Pietro Marcello wants to remake a Taviani brothers movie. Martin (Luca Marinelli) is a rough and tumble sailor who wakes up on a seaside dock after a night fumbling with good time gal Margherita (Denise Sardisco) and witnesses young Arturo (Giustiniano Alpi) being beaten up by a much bigger lug. Martin steps in and punches the assailant out, accompanying the young man home where his bourgeois family happily welcomes him in, grateful to him for saving their child and willing to overlook his bad table manners and general ignorance.
Martin meets Arturo’s sister Elena (Jessica Cressy) and is immediately smitten, she shows him the books in her library and he tells her of the poetry he feels he could compose if he were better educated. She, believing that all he needs to rise in quality is to learn more, encourages Martin to study his way out of the lower decks, and he dedicates himself to it, becoming an avid reader and pursuing the career of a writer. He graduates from poems to stories, in which he captures his honest and raw observations of life for the underprivileged, and sends them out for publication but is met with scores of rejections from every journal he writes to. Supporting himself with rough manual labour work as he plies his creative trade in his room, he and Elena cement their feelings for each other and it is made clear to him that he won’t be able to marry with full family approval unless he makes something of himself.
After his first story makes its way to public eyes, however, Martin grows confident in his feelings about the political shifts happening in his country that see black shirts going up against blood-red socialists; he, an avowed individualist, sees both as the conduits by which opportunists take advantage of the public. His political awakening causes a rift with Elena, but success comes soon after and we catch up with him, years later, a world-renowned novelist whose baggy eyes, stained teeth and fading hair colour speak to how hollowed out he is by a level of success that no longer means anything to him. Bitter and resentful towards the people who are now clamoring for his attention after having ignored him in the past, Martin feels betrayed by his own failure to focus on more than just his own ambition.
London, an avowed socialist, wrote the character during a time when he himself felt despondent about his success, later claiming that he meant to outwardly criticize individualist thinking and was disappointed that the message didn’t come across to the public when the book was published. Marcello lays the story’s themes out clearly without ever overstating them, allowing the anger and desperation in Marinelli’s big, vulgarly expressive eyes to tell us everything we need to know about the limitations of political ideologies that contribute to the character’s disillusionment.
A dark and troubling Künstlerroman that questions the nature of popularity and fame, this film is rich with deeply felt characters and exciting performances, with Venice Best Actor winner Marinelli doing a particularly magnetic job of holding the entire thing together with his generous and warm star turn.
European Film Award Nominations: Best European Film; Best European Actor (Luca Marinelli); Best European Director (Pietro Marcello); Best European Screenwriter
Toronto International Film Festival: 2019
Venice Film Festival: Best Actor (Luca Marinelli)