No God But the Unknown: Pietro Marcello and Maurizio Braucci on Martin Eden

By Jordan Cronk

“Of course it was beautiful; but there was something more than beauty in it, something more stingingly splendid which had made beauty its handmaiden.”—Jack London, Martin Eden

Pietro Marcello’s decade-long evolution from idiosyncratic film essayist to grand narrative storyteller represents one of the most significant artistic flowerings in contemporary cinema. Recently unveiled in competition at Venice, the Italian filmmaker’s fourth feature, Martin Eden, is momentous in ways that many Marcello enthusiasts may not expect: distinctly big, dramatic, and affecting, it confirms Marcello’s burgeoning talents and marks the belated arrival of a singular artist to the international art-house stage. More impressively, it does so without sacrificing the beauty, rigour, and intelligence that has built Marcello’s reputation as one of European cinema’s foremost fusionists. Indeed, one can draw a mostly straight line from the director’s early archival shorts and increasingly expansive hybrid features to the majestic storytelling sweep of this, his most ambitious project to date.

Based on Jack London’s 1909 novel, Martin Eden finds Marcello applying his wide range of art-historical reference points and flair for archival materials to a story of vast sociopolitical resonance.Whereas the director’s two previous features, The Mouth of the Wolf (2009) and Lost and Beautiful (2015), were rooted in documentary—and, indeed, only took on their respective narrative dimensions during the course of production, via a fortuitous encounter with the wayward protagonist of the former and the unexpected death of the latter’s original subject—Martin Eden operates from a wholly fictional foundation, albeit one reimagined to correspond with Marcello’slong-standing interest in the plight of Italy’s proletariat. To accomplish this, Marcello and his Lost and Beautiful co-writer Maurizio Braucci—who is also a former collaborator of Abel Ferrara (Pasolini, 2014) and Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah, 2008), as well as the recipient (along with Claudio Giavanessi and Roberto Saviano) of a Silver Bear for Best Screenplay at Berlin this year for Giavanessi’s Piranhas—have transposed London’s novel from early 20th-century Oakland to Naples in anunspecified moment in the decades surrounding WWI. In doing so, they’ve shifted the socioeconomic elements of the original story into a continuum of Italian modernism in which politics and aesthetics go hand in hand. Further, in freely adapting London’s novel, Marcello and Braucci have fashioned the title character into an emblem of the modern culture industry, whose neoliberal particulars London predicted with startling clarity. 

The film follows Martin (played with an extraordinary combination of tenderness and ferocity by Luca Marinelli) from his early days as a lowly, uneducated sailor, through his years as a wide-eyed writer under the spell of bourgeois society, to his later life as a celebrated but bitter artist living in posh isolation. As in the novel, Martin’s journey begins serendipitously. After a passionate night with a working-class woman named Margherita (Denise Sardisco), he saves the son of a local aristocrat from a beating at the hands of a dockworker. Arriving at the family’s gilded estate, he’s introduced to the boy’s sister, Elena (Jessica Cressy), a university student who begins to tutor Martin and encourage his nascent writing talent. As the two develop feelings for one another, Martin, sensing an opportunity to raise his social and artistic standing, integrates himself into Elena’s world of privilege and refinement, both to win the approval of her family and to earn respect as an aspiring author. Although Martin’s upwardly mobile ethos stands in contrast to London’s socialist ideology, the book is nonetheless a definitive piece of auto-portraiture, coming as it did after nearly a decade of acclaim in which the author, still only 33 at the time, had grown increasingly disillusioned with the trappings of fame and its attendant pressures.

It’s in this tension between Martin’s individualism, shaped through the evolutionary thought experiments of English political theorist Herbert Spencer, and the era’s wider socialist values that Marcello’s film generates its power. Encouraged by his troubled mentor Russ Brissenden (Carlo Cecchi) to add a socialist element to his writing (“It might be the only thing that will save you from the disappointment that’s approaching,” he says prophetically), Martin instead takes the opposite tack: in one of the film’s most memorable sequences, he and Brissenden attend a labour protest, and Martin takes the stage to denounce collectivism, calling the protestors a “society of slaves.” This sentiment is echoed just a few scenes later, when Martin calls out the hypocritical politics of Elena’s father and a group of his well-bred liberal colleagues over dinner. Just as Martin begins to make inroads as a writer (the story’s first half is punctuated with multiple returned manuscripts that eventually result in the publication of his debut novel, The Apostate), so too does his disenchantment with his new surroundings begin to take a toll on his sense of self. When his relationship with Elena inevitably falters and Brissenden commits suicide, Martin, having since rekindled his romance with Margherita, is left to reconcile his beliefs with the belated recognition of his work by the very people that prompted his exile.

Such class-conscious concerns are part and parcel of Marcello’s cinema—one might recall the migrant workers travelling through Italy by express train in Crossing the Line (2007), or the unrequited romance between the two ex-cons at the centre of The Mouth of the Wolf—and if one of Martin Eden’s great accomplishments is in how these preoccupations have been translated into a more concrete narrative structure, it’s equally impressive how Marcello has integrated his typical use of archival material and expired celluloid stocks into the film’s larger formal organization. Interspersed throughout Martin’s journey is found footage of early-to-mid-century street life and labour, images of ships, trains, and machinery reflecting an era of rapid industrialization. Together with original 16mm footage shot by cinematographers Alessandro Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo and treated(through colour-tinting and other analog effects) by Marcello for sequences that evoke memories of Martin’s childhood, the film creates a deceptively slippery temporal framework that speaks to the director’s broad view of history and his protagonist’s place in our collective view of the past. “No society that ignores the law of evolution can last,” Martin declares during his speech to the group of incensed strikers; of course, the same might be said of artists and filmmakers, and with the unexpected scope and audacity of his latest Marcello proves that he has no intention of resting on his laurels.

Cinema Scope: Pietro, it was you who suggested that we do this interview with Maurizio, and I’m glad that you did, as it seems to me that this film, probably more so than any of your others, really took shape through the writing process. Can you tell me about how you and Maurizio came to know each other, how your collaboration first started, and how that’s continued through Lost and Beautiful and now Martin Eden?

Pietro Marcello: Maurizio and I have known each other for 20 years. We have an age difference of ten years but we have shared many political and social experiences. We have worked together quite often, and Jack London’s novel was a gift that Maurizio gave me 20 years ago, so it was right for us to work together on this very free adaptation of Martin Eden. We are also both producers of the film through our company Avventurosa, which allowed us to make this very free transposition of the novel for cinema. Our Martin Eden is more of a Mediterranean character, and the situation is deeply rooted in Europe and in European culture and not in the American one of San Francisco in the beginning of the 20th century, as was London’s. I felt the need to make this film after 20 years, and it was beautiful and important to work on it with Maurizio. I feel it’s a necessary film for the way it resonates with our contemporary times.

Scope: Maurizio, how did you become familiar with the novel? Do you remember when you first read it and when you gave it to Pietro? 

Maurizio Braucci: Yes, I remember because when I gave it to Pietro I said to him, “That’s our story.” Because it’s a story of people who discover culture—the power of culture—during their lives: through meeting people, masters, friends, books…It’s not an education that we received in an ordinary way, but one from all around our city, all around the world, all around our lives. In each case we were establishing references for our own improvement and our own teaching.

Scope: How did this cultural education relate to your formal education?

Braucci: We both received an ordinary education but, as Pietro mentioned, we’ve since been applying our politics in various social circles, so that was a big experience for us, just seeing how the world works. The difference between us and other friends is that we have been more engaged in reality. London’s book kind of represents, more than maybe any other, ourselves.

Scope: What is it about the novel that made you two think that it would be worth transposing to an Italian setting, and to a somewhat more modern time period?

Marcello: Our Martin is more modern, indeed. He is the 20th century. But to me, he’s like Hamlet or Faust: he’s just a young boy that somehow ends up betraying the peace and the social class he belongs to. And we can’t even speak of a class conflict here: he’s just an archetype. At least, to me, it was obvious that he’s an archetype. He’s a negative hero. And he was for Jack London as well. He used to say that each of us has our own Martin Eden. It is indeed the story of emancipation, but in a way Martin Eden is a victim of the culture industry. And in that way it’s a very political film.

Scope: What was the adaptation process like? Did you two sit down and work on the script together, or was it done remotely?

Marcello: I come from documentary, so my process of writing is not in the typical Anglo-Saxon tradition of a very structured screenplay. The writing is necessarily incomplete, and I believe in the opportunity and in the fact that you need to betray the writing at a certain point. To be more concrete, we did the transposition of the novel together, and Maurizio did the découpage. We worked together in changing the literary language to a cinematic one, doing our homework. On one side we felt very free with our choices, but at the same time we were very close to the novel. We also adopted the Rossellini method because, in writing the screenplay, we left room for the unexpected moments that we knew could occur during the shoot. It was a very experimental process for us. We worked together in a home in the countryside. We can’t really work in a digital form like Skype. We said, “We need to meet other people,” and we asked for advice and special consultancy, especially for the historical, political, and even literary references in the film.

Scope: Pietro, your films seem to have taken on more and more of a narrative form over the years. Has that been a conscious decision on your part?

Marcello: I believe that documentary-making is a tool, the essential tool in training filmmakers, because you learn to deal with the kind of unexpected things that we just mentioned. And I do believe that all of my films are in Martin EdenCrossing the LineThe Mouth of the WolfThe Silence of Pelesjan (2011), and Lost and Beautiful. It somehow sums up everything I’ve done so far, and is not new, in my view. I feel I’ve used the same cinematic tools, but I’m not in the right position to judge my own work. It is difficult for me to see, but I strongly believe that Martin Eden sums up everything I’ve done. As far as I’m concerned, I would like to continue making films as a transposition of reality, because filmmaking is a transposition of reality. And of course, with my film, you’ve seen just one Martin Eden. I mean, I had to end it in a certain way, but there could be many different versions of the story because it is so rich in archival material and in history. In all of this, Luca Marinelli has been the factor that allowed me to cross into this realm.

Scope: Would you say that your process has changed at all with this film, as far as shooting or mounting a slightly bigger production?

Marcello: In the past I’ve worked with very little money, but I feel I used the same method in filmmaking, although, being the producer of the film, I had to control much more than I’ve had to in the past. I do believe that this is the system of filmmaking that should be reformed, so to speak, because it is not a matter of the number of people that work on a film, but the quality of the people that counts. My ideal crew is this sort of small fleet, because I like to control all the machinery. I like to also be the cinematographer, and to use film stock, though I am not against digital. I like the craftsmanship of filmmaking. When I shoot a film I am fascinated by chance, by the unpredictable, the kind of alchemy that allows you to change the story, the scene, the time.

Scope: Did you use a lot of the same crew as you had on your past films?

Marcello: I worked with the usual collaborators and, of course, there were some new people in the crew, some of whom I worked with better than others. To me, it was really a sort of fire christening in a way, because I really felt I pushed the envelope for this project. And being a producer, I had to learn this aspect as well, and I did make mistakes in terms of wrongly assuming things because it was such a big project. A filmmaker, I think, should focus on making the film, and not be so much concerned with production. But I do believe this was a valiant and rich experience and, thanks to the mistakes I made, I grew up. I hope that with the next film I’ll just be the director. But if a producer chooses to work with me there will hopefully be an added value because I learned all the aspects of executive production, and I now know very well how to spend money in the right way.

Scope: Did you have to work as a producer simply to get the film made?

Marcello: It was such an important production, a big production, and such a complex one that I felt that I needed to control the whole process, including the executive production. It was a challenge: we had to try and control all the different stages in order to be able to give ourselves the opportunity of doing what we wanted to do. But I also don’t believe that filmmaking is the seventh art—there’s still a long way to go.

Scope: Can you two talk about the decision to update the story to an unspecified era in Italian history? Why leave the exact period unclear?

Braucci: It’s a very classic novel from the 20th century, and most people that read it when they were young remember it as a melodrama of the poor writer that wants to become famous. When you reread it, you realize that Jack London has dealt with very important issues for the last century: the creation, or the birth of the culture industry that then paved the way for the mass culture, and the conflicting relationship between individuals that collectively branched out into capitalism’s exasperation and communism’s annihilation of the individual—and, of course, the only correct vision made by anarchism, in a special way by the Italian revolutionary Errico Malatesta. So while it’s a pivotal novel of the 20th century, it also deals with very important contemporary issues as well. And while these issues occurred slightly later in Italy and in Europe, they were shared in all countries belonging to the Western world. The effort was thus made to adapt the novel to European culture and to Italian culture in particular. This is where we had to do a lot of research and enlist the help of many experts and consultants. For instance, in Italy we completely lack maritime literature in the tradition of Moby-Dick or Joseph Conrad, but we discovered that there is a very rich literature that has to do with farming traditions. On the other side, we switched the Swinburne Anglo-Saxon reference to the French poet Baudelaire, because he was more important in Italian culture. We had to find a series of equivalents like this, while translating the greatness and the richness of the novel itself.

Marcello: We must also not forget that Martin Eden is to Jack Landon as The Picture of Dorian Gray is to Oscar Wilde. We are talking about two novels that are self-portraits of the authors. That is to say that any reference to Martin Eden is a reference to Jack London, but in a more negative light. It’s like a mirror in a way. It is the anti-hero they are portraying—not references to us, but to themselves. And that tells something that is true for all times: that you can have the most beautiful and noble goals in life, but you can get lost along the way and end up in a completely different situation.

Scope: Because of this, was it difficult to treat the material in a personal manner?

Marcello: The freedom that we took in this adaptation was not just in making all these aspects, even the autobiographical aspects of Jack London, more contemporary in terms of setting, but also in terms of the portrait of Martin Eden himself, of him looking for and trying to conquer success, and finding himself engulfed in a total state of confusion—thoughts of wanting to die because he is dead inside. And then of course there’s the metaphor of crossing the sea, and crossing time, and history. But the soul is lost. Martin Eden’s soul is lost before his body. 

Braucci: During our research, we found out that there was a communist Neapolitan revolutionary whose name was Edmondo Pelusowho befriended Jack London and went to live in San Francisco with him and shared political fights in the name of socialism. He also wrote and published articles about London, but these were critical at a certain point of the figure of the novelist. He blamed London for chasing after the sort of novelist fame. He wanted to become a star in the world of literature, and so the paradox is that it was an intimate and critical gaze on Jack London that somehow mirrored the one that Jack London had on Martin Eden and on himself. Peluso died later, in 1938, in a gulag in Siberia, a victim of Stalinism and, in some way, the socialist battle whose loss he had been critical of with regards to Jack London’s books. So in some ways this is a mirror, or embodiment, of the themes and contradictions of all of the uses that crisscross the 20th century and that are also present in the novel, in the protagonist, and in the author.

Scope: Tell me about the pairing of Luca Marinelli and Carlo Cecchi in the two main male roles. 

Marcello: I immediately thought about Luca and Carlo. They have worked together in the past, and it’s probably safe to say that Carlo Cecchi has been the mentor of Luca Marinelli, especially on stage. Carlo is more experienced and better known as a stage actor than he is in filmmaking. The film really stands on Luca’s shoulders, and I knew he would be able to shoulder the whole production. I felt his ability and skills as an actor would serve him well throughout the film, despite the changes of level and register that are present. In the case of Carlo, I didn’t even do a screen test. He was so brilliant and so helpful during the shoot. It was really a moment of deep sharing and epiphany, with both Carlo and Luca. They both stayed with us for a long, long time, from beginning to end. Also, allow me to add that for the two girls, Elena and Margherita, I wanted to find actresses that are almost unknown, because I wanted them to be fresh onscreen. And I found that in Jessica Cressy and Denise Sardisco.

Scope: Pietro, can you tell me a little about the archival footage that we see in the film? I’m curious where it came from, but also about some of the passages that seem to be composed of original footage that you made to look archival, for those moments meant to evoke Martin’s past.

Marcello: Yes, that’s correct. There is a lot of archival footage and also sequences and shots from my previous films, things that I shot by myself. As for the archival research, that was very thorough. It was thanks to Alessia Petitto, who dealt with this. The film opens with Errico Malatesta. He comes from Santa Maria Capua Vetere. He was an anarchist and a reference for the 1st of May and that specific historical moment, Savona 1921. Then it’s true that whenever we switch to the footage that I shot, these are moments of youth—they’re all images meant to service the film. It’s Martin’s own memory, of course. They shed light on the character and on the film. It’s a kind of counterpoint, or juxtaposition.

Scope: Where did the idea come from to switch perspectives like this?

Marcello: It’s something that I’ve done in my previous films. I’ve always used this kind of juxtaposition. It allows me to complete the portrayal of Martin Eden on one side with his account of his past and his story when he was a child, but also to give a portrait of the society of the time through those images. I have always used film archives, they are often indispensable for me, and I am fascinated by their irreproducibility. I believe that in Martin Eden the archives represent the vector of history into the film. It was also useful for me to tell the story in terms of editing. The editing is complex, it has different levels, and it was for this reason that I chose for the first time to use two editors, Aline Herve and Fabrizio Federico, with whom I shared the most adrenaline-filled part of the film—which for me is the editing!

Scope: How many formats did you shoot on?

Marcello: Well, the final format is 1:66, the uniform format. Most of the film is shot on 16mm or Super 16mm. Then I used a soft Cooke lens. We also coloured some archival footage because it was necessary to uniform the hues and the texture of the image itself. There are images in 35mm, such as footage of the ship you see early on, which is very beautiful and worked as a metaphor for what is happening in the character’s life. We also used some expired film stock. So many different formats that we then uniformed in the final editing. It’s a craftsman’s work, in a way.

Scope: After the book came out, Jack London remarked that no one realized that the book was a critique of individualism. I’m curious what each of you make of that statement?

Marcello: It’s a complex issue, and our position is explicit in the initial footage of Malatesta. He was an anarchist and believed that persons, individuals, people, are not to be neglected, but at the same time are not to become megalomaniac. And if you think about Jack London, his skills, his ability to see very far, he was almost clairvoyant, because for him, in 1909, the two big tragedies of the 20th century—totalitarianism on one side, with Stalinism and Nazism, and neoliberalism, which is of course a result of individualism, on the other—hadn’t even occurred yet. He is extremely contemporary and topical. We are still living all of this nowadays. In the research that we carried out for the film we also came to see, for example, the importance of the thought and writings of the recently deceased Agnes Heller, the Hungarian philosopher, who tried to reconcile Marxism with the idea of a person, of an individual. That’s a very urgent and topical contemporary theme, you know? The importance of raising and educating healthy individuals, and allowing them freedom of expression, but preventing them from excess, in a way. In that sense, Martin Eden is a masterpiece, a seminal work, especially considering when it was written.

Braucci: Jack London is really a very complex figure. On one side he’s known as a socialist writer, but he was also attending the bohemian circle of George Sterling and experimenting with drugs, with dreamlike journeys, and somehow he professed a kind of secular mysticism. He’s also the author of Social Darwinism in direct connection with Marx. And another connection is with Herbert Spencer, who was not only Jack London’s mentor but also Martin Eden’s mentor. What Jack London’s trying to do with his work is, yes, depict very important elements of culture and history, but also remind us that we must be careful not to allow those elements to turn us into nihilistic fanatics. Everything must be always meditated upon and adapted to different situations. To go back to Hebert Spencer, just to give you an example of the research that we carried out, and of the difficulties in trying to depict this fresco of the time of Martin Eden and Jack London, Spencer is a philosopher who’s almost neglected and forgotten in Italy, if not hated—he is considered a neocon mentor; we found just one professor who knew much about him. He’s considered to be the prophet of evil and, of course, the main negative reference for neoliberalism in Italy, although he’s still very much studied abroad and in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Scope: Pietro, I’ve been told that Jean-Pierre Mocky, who died just the other day, is a big influence on you. I don’t know if he had any influence on this film, per se, but can you talk about how he may have inspired you philosophically?

Marcello: I can say that he’s someone that had the courage of speaking his mind and the courage to explore the possibilities of cinema as a political tool. He’s someone I’ve deeply admired and my sadness is that I wish I could have met him and interviewed him, because I never had the opportunity to. What fascinated me the most about him was his ideas about the possibilities of making films, and his idea of what a film crew is. And he’s been everything: a director, an actor, a producer. I admire him for going on television and defaming filmmaking and the industry of film. The political structure that his ideas forged and the culture industry in general were the same subjects and issues of Martin Eden and Jack London. I’m quite impressed by your question on Mocky, because he is really the example and embodiment of the possibilities of making political cinema. He was a free voice, a free thinker. Unfortunately there are fewer and fewer nowadays.