NEW YORK – "The more he studied, the more vistas he caught of fields of knowledge yet unexplored, and the regret that days were only 24 hours long became a chronic complaint with him."
‘Martin Eden’ is about the desire to live a better life
So wrote Jack London of the eponymous working-class hero of his 1909 novel "Martin Eden," the story of one man's desperate attempt to better himself for the love of a woman considered "above his station."
Distributed by Kino Lorber, the latest big-screen adaptation of London's semi-autobiographical tale – an Italian-language film with English subtitles – offers a refreshing new take on the rags-to-riches saga.
Director Pietro Marcello, who co-wrote the screenplay with Maurizio Braucci, retains the book's basic plot and its themes of hope, ambition and class struggle. But the setting has changed from California to Naples, Italy, during an unspecified period of the 20th century beset by political upheaval.
Marcello's storytelling style also is far removed from London's. His habit of inserting old movie clips to advance the story and adding Italian pop songs to the soundtrack is somewhat jarring, albeit effective and entertaining as well.
Though he dreams of a better life, Martin (Luca Marinelli), a lowly sailor, is trapped by his social status and lack of education. In a flash, opportunity knocks when he rescues Arturo Orsini (Giustiniano Alpi), the young scion of a family of industrialists, from an assault and is invited to his home.
Within this enclave of wealth, power and privilege, Martin is transfixed by Elena (Jessica Cressy), Arturo's comely sister, and it's love at first sight. Charmed and intrigued, Elena (called Ruth in the novel) encourages Martin in his quest for improvement.
As Martin embarks on, as he puts it, "an incessant march toward the kingdom of knowledge," he discovers a flair for writing. But the road to success is long, arduous and littered with rejection notices from publishers.
Martin's impatience and frustration fuel his political awakening, leading him to question the status quo and consider socialism. This, of course, only drives him further away from Elena and her bourgeois world. "Socialism will save you from the disappointment that is coming," says Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi), an aging intellectual who becomes Martin's mentor.
"Martin Eden" charts its brooding hero's rocky progress toward an ending that's far more nuanced than London's blunt conclusion.
The film contains mild violence, implied sexual activity and drug use and occasional rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III – adults. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association.
McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.