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Pietro Marcello on Martin Eden, Influencer Culture and the Relationship between Art History and Shot Composition

Carlo Cecchi and Luca Marinelli in Martin Eden (courtesy of Kino Lorber)

Italian director Pietro Marcello has been making films since 2003, but his turn toward fiction films—first with 2015’s Lost & Beautiful and now with Martin Eden, an adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 novel—has gained him new admirers outside his home country and on the festival circuit. It is fitting, then, that just as his star is rising, he has crafted a cautionary tale about the perils of individualism and the ease with which it can swallow even the most idealistic artists.

But Marcello’s adaptation is anything but straightforward. His Martin Eden takes place at an indeterminate moment in Naples, and though rich in cultural detail, from its Neapolitan folk music to the archival footage and shots from Marcello’s earlier films, which serve as narrative flashbacks but also allow glimpses into 20th century Italian life, it tells a story with worldwide resonance. Its story is of the gradual dissolution of left-wing politics over the course of the century and its replacement by megalomaniacal individualism.

Ahead of a screening at the New York Film Festival, Marcello and Filmmaker spoke with the assistance of a translator about the risks he took adapting the film, the simultaneous stagnation and promise of a political cinema, his relationship to Soviet film, and the troubles and rewards of producing his own film. Martin Eden is out from Kino Lorber this Friday.

Filmmaker: What drew you to the Jack London novel Martin Eden in the first place?

Marcello: Because I find he is a very contemporary figure, just like Hamlet or Faust. It’s very contemporary and very important for me to use as a protagonist of the story. In my script I wanted for Martin Eden to span across the entirety of the 20th century, the “short century.” My co script-writer, Maurizio Braucci, gave me the book as a gift 20 years ago, then 20 years later we decided it was the time for us to make it.

Filmmaker: Did your growing stature in the non-Italian cinephile world contribute to your decision that now was the right time?

Marcello: No. Martin Eden is a negative character, not just for me but also in Jack London’s version. We tend to love the first part, when Martin Eden redeems himself through education, through culture, as a young man who becomes a full-fledged man, but he ends up being a victim of himself, of his own individualism. He’s very modern in that he is a result of what today we would call influencer culture: hedonism, narcissism. Nobody loves Martin Eden in the second part, he’s a negative character. In the book, he was a result of being deeply rooted in the 19th century, whereas what we wanted to do was have this character span across the 20th century. We wanted to make a political movie about the 20th century going up to the present.

Filmmaker: The time period of the film is deliberately indeterminate. How did you decide on that indeterminacy?

Marcello: I didn’t want to stay within my comfort zone. I had the possibility of experimenting, and I could do that because we produced it ourselves. But what we wanted to do was create the story of this character who has this path that leads him to a rise and fall. And at the very end, he sinks, deeply, just like the ship does in the archival footage. So, this is a metaphor for the history of the 20th century as such. That’s exactly what happened throughout the century. In the film, the usage of archival footage allowed me to be freer, and the archival footage allows me to introduce flashbacks about [Martin Eden’s] life and talk about his short stories, but also to talk about what was happening in my country and in Europe. This Martin Eden is a very Southern European Martin Eden, very different from Jack London’s Martin Eden. In the USA, you’re more familiar in general with Jack London’s adventure books or struggle-for-life books; however, Jack London was a socialist, and in Europe and the UK, in Russia and Germany and France, and in Italy, he was known as such. His socialist books like Martin Eden were much more popular than in this country. In Martin Eden, this young man redeems himself socially through education and culture, but at the end of it he commits suicide. Maybe in the United States this would not be seen so favorably, and that may be part of the reason that the novel wasn’t all that popular in this country.

Filmmaker: You mentioned you produced the film yourself, and this was also a bigger budget production. How did those things affect your filmmaking method?

Marcello: Negatively, because it was very difficult for me to produce and I don’t want to do it anymore. But I know that next time I will do the same, so I don’t know what I can say. I learned that I like to be the DP and the editor and to focus on the cinema.

Filmmaker: With both Mouth of the Wolf (2009) and Lost & Beautiful there were things that happened during production that changed what the film was going to be. How close was your Martin Eden to what you originally set out to make?

Marcello: This was different because there were actors, but still, maybe here if we had a bigger budget, if I had more money…it’s a little shaky as a movie. And it’s a little bit of an expressionist movie. In its imperfections, though, we were looking for soul. It needed to be a match of popular and experimental cinema. We wanted to bring into mainstream cinemas another way of making movies.

Filmmaker: It reminds me a little bit, in that sense, of Pasolini’s idea of contamination, and I know that Maurizio Braucci wrote [Abel] Ferrara’s Pasolini (2014). [Marcello shakes his head] No?

Marcello: One should not have models. This is what Bresson was always saying. But I’m a cinephile just like you are, so we can talk about it. To some extent, the influence was the kind of filmmaking that is known as Italian Pink Neorealism and all those movies in which everybody is crying all the time. There is also a deep influence from my studies of Soviet film in the counterpoint editing style.

Filmmaker: Yes, I wanted to ask specifically about [Artavazd] Peleshian, who you made a documentary about, and also perhaps Kira Muratova and Getting to Know the Big Wide World (1980), which seems to have influenced some of your colors and compositions.

Marcello: Yes, because I love that film of Kira Muratova’s. But about Peleshian, it is instead the school of Mikhail Romm. There was this idea of Pink Neorealism on the popular part of the film, but the editing and counterpoint is very important and maybe had influence of the school of Mikhail Romm, a great master—for [Marlen] Khutsiev, [Elem] Klimov, [Andrei] Konchalovsky and many of them, almost like a Soviet Rossellini. Peleshian was the one who theorized distance montage, but he did not have much to do with this specific movie, though he is known in Italian documentary.

Filmmaker: In the film you use 35mm for the boat, 16mm for most of the film, archival footage, expired stock, you recolor a lot…how did you decide to bring this altogether?

Marcello: I like to mix everything together. I don’t have the budget to shoot the film in 35mm and academy frame. I restored a lot of material, I colored a lot of material, but I used all the material altogether and like the idea of a single entity that included all this.

Filmmaker: Why did you color some of the archival footage?

Marcello: To provide chromatic continuity. I hope that one day Kodak will give me a lot of film, as a gift, for all my troubles.

Filmmaker: Whenever we are talking about the role that art has in the world, I feel like we need to talk about the Soviets, but we are in a post-Soviet world now. How do you see the relationship between art and politics today as compared to what it may have been in the 20th century?

Marcello: The difference between us and them is that they made cinema for no profit, just for the citizens. I believe that cinema is still a very powerful tool, but the invention of sound brought nothing but damage to cinema. After that you had the dictatorships—Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler—who used it as propaganda. Cinema didn’t have a natural evolution in terms of its financials. After that, it became just entertainment. To some extent it is true what the Surrealists said, and that’s that people go to the cinema to steal emotions that are negated in daily life. Still, cinema is, in this day and age, a powerful tool that is unexplored and has a lot of room for development.

Filmmaker: What kind of development?

Marcello: I don’t know, but I think that viewers need to be educated on cinema. I think too often the power is with the cultural industry and of middle-men that decide what is shown and what isn’t. 

Filmmaker: And that’s Martin Eden. It shows how the cultural industry has a tendency to turn art into an aristocratic or bourgeois plaything, and your film shows what happens to even a very idealistic person who gets sucked into that industry.

Marcello: Exactly, you’re completely right, and nobody has made this observation yet. That is what the film is about. And Jack London’s life was an example of this as well. Jack London was the first victim of the modern cultural industry, or literary industry. 

Filmmaker: Shifting gears, can you talk a little about the music choices? You have everything from French and Italian pop music to classical music.

Marcello: At the start of the film we have Neapolitan pop music, simple music, and our lead character is still simple and naïve. Then, as the character evolves, the music also evolves. He studies, he educates himself, so the music becomes classical music. The music evolves just like the character evolves. It goes from popular music when he’s a young man to cultivated, sophisticated music. I like mixing high and low.

Filmmaker: How did your training as a painter and your work as a documentary filmmaker contribute to the film?

Marcello: In terms of composition, always. Before, there was this idea that a filmmaker needed to be well-versed in terms of learning about art history when learning about composition, whereas now filmmakers only focus on 4K, 8K, 10K, but they forget about composition. To me, composition is everything.

Filmmaker: Is that related to your decision to shoot on film instead of digitally?

Marcello: I’ve always shot on film, but I’m not opposed to digital, as long as you’re able to shoot and compose. The problem is the DPs don’t study art history. There was a very close relation between painting, art history, composition and cinematography, and now they only focus on 2K and 4K, not composition.

Filmmaker: Did any particular school of art influence your compositions?

Marcello: I love art history as a whole, and the problem with cinema is often I do a lot of research into images and I have them in my mind, but then I can’t incorporate any of it because of budgetary issues. I do three years of research to find something, and I have something very clear in mind, but then I can’t apply it so I have to be able to adapt to what I have and the resources at my disposal.

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