While language is generally used on an everyday basis for the exchange of trivial information, when employed properly, in the form of Logos or Pathos for example, it can contribute to the creation of linguistically constructed identities. As a film whose central theme is language, Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden (2019), based on Jack London’s novel with the same title, follows a sailor, Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli), as he gradually turns into a famous author after his encounter with Elena Orsini (Jessica Cressy), an upper class woman, inspires him to pursue a literary education just in case a few fancy French words could mean he has a chance to be with her.
By showcasing the inherent power in language, the film brings to the fore its role in relation to society. Determined to achieve social mobility and stand next to Elena as an equal, Martin first becomes acquainted with the proper vocabulary by immersing himself in the works of Baudelaire. From that moment on, Martin alternates between Italian, Neapolitan, and French depending on his intended audience. This interchanging between dialects allows him to maneuver his position through different social classes. As Martin educates himself, he becomes entranced by language and voices his dream to “turn [himself] into one of the eyes through which the world sees.” Aiming to venture into his writing career, Martin picks odd jobs, leaving, once and for all, his life at sea behind. His resolve to write about what he deems real life, and not about the class he aspires to join, although a noble act, prevents him from realizing his dream.
As an original thinker ahead of his time, Martin is an outsider who doesn’t belong in Elena’s world. Besides her parents’ verbal objections, Martin’s Othered status also takes a visual form. The main plot, set in Naples, is shot either in light shades of blue, white and beige when looking into the upper-class world, or earthly dark colors of brown and green when Martin’s side of the tracks is the focal point of the narrative. This difference in color signifies the typical difference between the two social classes in the form of the cold/warm binary.
In an unspecified temporal leap, Martin has been established as an acclaimed author for the same musings about individualism he was rejected for in the past. So, even if Martin still lingers in complete stasis in relation to his disdain of Socialism, the same can’t be said about his environment. Aware that his success isn’t based on his literary talent, but on ideological principles which he doesn’t support, Martin is not only alone, but also devoid of any emotion; having alienated himself from his true identity, he suffers from a fragmented sense of Self. While scenes with political signifiers dominate the film, such as the red curtains inside a room where someone is giving a Socialist speech, or the final declaration that “the war has started,” they are ambiguous at best because they don’t offer a specific time-stamp.
Aiming to create an atmosphere filled with tensions, the film purposefully carries on with its portrayal of time’s fluidity through the use of archival footage. Connecting pieces from different time periods across various aesthetic forms, Marcello shapes a discomfiting cinematic universe that never fosters a moment of peace for its audience. Meant to shed light on the difficulties regarding the translation of life’s experiences into literary art, footage of a blue ship comes in glimpses whenever Martin walks and thinks. The ship, like Martin himself, is characterized by liminality; appearing both in the segments of the everyday plot and of the archival footage, the ship has no fixed meaning. In its absence, however, Martin is permanently damaged and has been deprived of his purpose as a writer.
Despite the fact that he was merely seen as a plaything among the upper class in the beginning, Martin manages to infiltrate high society as a writer, but he comes to realize that at heart he’s still a sailor. This duality in Martin, which corresponds to the essence/phenomena binary, has rendered him unsuitable for both realms; existing in a in-between space, Martin lives his days in unbearable pressure. Having spent so much time on dry land, his torment will live on as long as he remains confined inside that ornate house. On a day he sets foot outside, Martin seems to be chasing himself, and is led to a sea shore. Here, closer to home than he has been in a long time, he decides to return to where he belongs. In the final shot, Martin swims towards the sunset, and thereby, even if it’s never depicted on-screen, towards his end. At this point, as the soundtrack evokes a sense of mercy, this seemingly desperate act is the only viable happy ending for Martin.