The Legend Of 1900

on October 29, 1999 by Wade Major
   It's a credit to Giuseppe Tornatore's screenwriting and filmmaking skills that his English-language debut, "The Legend of 1900," survives with any emotional impact whatsoever, having lost more than 35 minutes of its original running time to a contractual dispute with the thoughtless bean-counters at Fine Line. Still, even in its present form, "The Legend of 1900" (originally titled "The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean") stands as Tornatore's best and most accessible film since his Oscar-winning "Cinema Paradiso," a magical, allegorical tale of a world-class pianist whose entire life is spent on board a trans-Atlantic cruise liner, never once setting foot on dry land. Named for the year of his birth by the ship's furnace worker (Bill Nunn) who found him as a baby, Nineteen Hundred (Tim Roth) lives a life of both superhuman joys and desperate pains.
   Told through the memories of Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a journeyman trumpeter who became Nineteen Hundred's closest friend, an enigmatic portrait of the pianist emerges, a man whose cripplingly agoraphobic fear of leaving the ship is repeatedly offset by the magic he generates when his fingers stroke the keys of a piano. No less than real-life Jazz great Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III) even shows up to test the man's legendary abilities in a "piano duel" that is one of the film's more spectacular moments. Yet Nineteen Hundred seeks no lasting fame or glory of his own, rejecting every opportunity for the kind of notoriety that might require him to leave his beloved ship.
   All things considered, Tornatore has crafted a wonderful journey, even if the Fine Line cuts have made it more of a highlight reel than a full-bodied character study. Thanks to eye-popping production values and a bracingly romantic score by Ennio Morricone, it's hard to protest even flaws that seem to have remained from the original version. Precisely what kind of reception might have greeted Tornatore's cut, however, looks to be a privilege reserved for DVD buyers. Starring Tim Roth, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Melanie Thierry and Clarence Williams III. Directed and written by Giuseppe Tornatore. Produced by Francesco Tornatore. A Fine Line release. Drama. Rated R for language. Running time: 124 min
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