The hero of Italian film “Martin Eden” is probably one of the least interesting writer characters I have ever seen throughout my inconsequential moviegoing experience of around 30 years. While I admire his passion and spirit to some degree, what he says and writes throughout the film usually bored me, and then I became conflicted as alternatively amused and distracted by the deliberately artificial style and mood of the movie.
Although Jack Landon’s novel of the same name on which the movie is based is set in the American society around the early 20th century, the screenplay by director Pietro Marcello and his co-writer Maurizio Braucci moves the story and characters to Italy during an unspecified time period somewhere around the 1960-70s, and this background change feels sort of amusing at first. We observe a few notable period details from time to time, but the movie is adamantly ambiguous about its exact period background, and its soundtrack freely bounces among different music styles while supported by the eclectic score by Marco Messina and Sacha Ricci.
Anyway, our hero Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) is your typical struggling writer character. Although he has aspired to be a great writer someday, he has still been stuck in his working class background without much progress, and he does not even get any proper education to help him taking the first step for his future writing career. At one point, he applies for college education, but his interviewers are aghast at his apparent lack of education, and I must confess that this rather silly moment somehow made me feel an urge to strike his head with a copy of William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s “The Elements of Style”.
On one day, Martin happens to save a rich lad from a little trouble, and this lad gladly invites Martin to his big house for introducing Martin to his family as a new friend. Being quite open-minded as he says, the lad’s parents generously welcome Martin without any hesitation, and the lad’s sister, Elena (Jessica Cressy), is instantly attracted to Martin because, well, she is enthralled by his passion and ambition besides his handsome appearance.
Elena is willing to help Martin in one way or another, and so are his parents, but Martin firmly refuses any help from them as a guy who has zealously stuck to his belief and dignity. His mind is particularly occupied with absorbing what Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer wrote, and the movie later gives us a couple of big scenes where he attempts to defend his rather old-fashioned social/political belief in front of others around him.
Meanwhile, things get worse for Martin with more despair and frustration. After clashing hard with his brother-in-law who have provided him a place to say just because of his wife, Martin eventually decides to leave the residence of his brother-in-law and his family, and he subsequently moves to a rural town where he luckily receives the kindness of a stranger he met on a train. He continues to write as usual, but his works keep getting rejected as before, and he soon finds himself against the wall due to his increasingly poor financial situation.
Of course, there comes a precious opportunity to Martin when he meets an aging writer after attending Elena’s birthday party. While quite jaded and cynical to say the least, this old writer does not mind giving some advices and lessons to Martin, and then Martin’s writing career finally gets a breakthrough he has yearned for years.
During the last act of the movie, we observe Martin being at the top of his field some time later, but the movie never fully conveys to us what makes his works so special except throwing the fragments of his thoughts to us at times. We are merely served with a series of aimless tirades from him, and these moments only remind us more of how much he lets himself wallowed in self-pity and self-hate. As a consequence, we do not care that much about him, and the thin narrative and superficial characterization of the screenplay further exacerbate this problem.
Luca Marinelli, who recently drew our attention for his solid supporting turn in “The Old Guard” (2020), looks as dashing and charismatic as demanded by his archetype role, but his performance, which incidentally won the Best Actor award when the movie was shown at the Venice International Film Festival in last year, feels uneven and jarring particularly during the last act of the movie. In case of several other main cast members revolving around him, most of them are stuck with their flat supporting roles, and Carmen Pommella and Carlo Cecchi manage to leave some impression while Jessica Cressy and Denise Sardisco do not have much to do in contrast except functioning as two different women in Martin’s life.
Although I became more disappointed during its last hour and is accordingly baffled about some enthusiastic responses from several movie critics, the movie is not entirely without interesting stuffs to observe. I did enjoy its several anachronistic touches, and I also liked how the movie utilizes a number of old movie footage clips for reflecting its hero’s churning state of mind or whatever.
Nevertheless, I must point out to you that there are many other films about writers which are much better than “Martin Eden”. As a matter of fact, I would love to recommend you to watch “Wonder Boys” (2000) right now, and I assure you that you will get a more entertaining experience from that small gem which surely deserves more recognition and appreciation in my trivial opinion.