Presenting around 250 features and nearly ninety short films this year, the Toronto International Film Festival is the sprawling showcase of the fall season. For some films, such as Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, unquestionably one of the most well-received titles of the fall festival marathon, TIFF is just one stop, albeit an important one, along the way to the end-of-the-year hubbub of awards and top ten lists. Having premiered in Venice and screened at Telluride and TIFF, Marriage Story will next be the centerpiece presentation at the New York Film Festival.
Other films have other destinations. Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, for example, premiered at TIFF and will open the London Film Festival on October 2. Writing for Sight & Sound, Tom Charity calls the film a “rollicking adaptation” of the Dickens classic that “announces itself as a radical and progressive reclamation of the heritage ‘lit pic’ from the off.” We’ll be taking a closer look at several of the other titles heading to London, and of course, a much closer look at each of the films in the NYFF’s Main Slate in the days and weeks ahead.
Meantime, for a festival that, unlike Cannes, Venice, or Berlin, is not built on a hierarchy of competitions, TIFF 2019 has produced quite a round of award winners. In 2015, the festival added a single competitive section to its dozen or so programs, and this year’s Platform prize winner is Martin Eden. Adapted from Jack London’s 1909 novel, the film is Pietro Marcello’s first fully fledged fictional feature, though some of his previous documentaries, such as Lost and Beautiful (2015), have branched off into strands of fictional narrative. Reviewing Martin Eden in the new issue of Cinema Scope, Jordan Cronk suggests that “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.”
Luca Marinelli, who won the best actor award in Venice, plays a sailor who falls for an aristocratic woman in Naples at some undefined point in the early twentieth century. Tomas Trussow draws a comparison between Martin Eden and Christian Petzold’s Transit (2018) in that “Marcello’s decision to maintain a temporal ambiguity releases the story from its novel’s period confines and gives it space to manifest itself in dialogic relation to the current moment.” Determined to educate himself and upgrade his social status, Martin becomes enamored with the individualist philosophy of Herbert Spencer. He denounces socialism and his own proletarian roots and becomes something of a literary sensation once his writing is finally published. But then he discovers that the class he’s wormed his way into is a moral and intellectual wasteland.
As Jordan Cronk puts it, Marcello and cowriter Maurizio Braucci “have fashioned the title character into an emblem of the modern culture industry, whose neoliberal particulars London predicted with startling clarity.” At In Review Online, Paul Attard notes that “Marinelli has such a distinctive presence, both psychically and emotionally, that he’s able to inhabit the screen with the same type of conflicting temperament that has defined this tragic hero type for over a hundred years, one that wavers between the nobly ambitious and the stubbornly conceited.”
Not everyone is on board the wave of praise for Martin Eden. In Variety, Jay Weissberg finds the film to be “an unwieldy intellectual sprawl whose incontestable visual pleasures distract from the shallow characterizations, all of which are representatives of varying theories rather than people of independent thought and disposition.” But what visual pleasures! Nearly every reviewer admires the work of cinematographers Alessandro Abate and Francesco Di Giacomo, who have shot the film on 16 mm, as well as the unabashed artificiality of the color grading. “All along Martin’s journey,” writes Leonardo Goi in the Notebook, “Marcello scatters archival footage of the city’s banlieue and its folks, so seamlessly inserted within the film they all feel part of the same breathing tissue. A portrait of a single individual swells into a tableaux of a whole community on the cusp of a catastrophe, a world and time ostensibly long past us, but which here spring out uncomfortably close—amplifying that proximity that makes Martin Eden such a perturbing, fascinating watch.”