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Weekly Alibi Don't Shoot the Piano Player

By Devin D. O'Leary

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  After a year-long delay, several major editorial trims and a name change, Giuseppe Tornatore's The Legend of 1900 is finally washing up on American shores. Back in 1990, writer/director Tornatore single- handedly revived the slumbering Italian film industry with his worldwide hit Cinema Paradiso. His follow-up films have proved minor hits (such as 1995's The Star Maker), but none has matched the endearing emotional content and luminous cinematic nostalgia that his first work mustered. With its big budget and international cast, The Legend of 1900 looked like a must-see at the start of last year's film fest circuit, but soon proved itself too ponderous a prospect for most international critics. A year's worth of tinkering have rendered the film far shorter in length and in title -- but no less curious a creation.

Originally titled The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean, the film traces the life of a strange young man, abandoned as a baby on the ocean-crossing cruiseliner The Virginian. Named, oddly enough, for the year of his birth, 1900 is adopted by a burley coal-shoveler (Bill Nun) and raised in the bowels of the massive ship. Never once setting foot on dry land, 1900 (played, as an adult, by Tim Roth) grows up on board The Virginian watching rich gadabouts shuffle off to Europe and starry-eyed immigrants make their way America. Early on, 1900 proves himself a startling musical prodigy and earns his keep playing piano in The Virginian's grand ballroom.

The Legend of 1900 is related to viewers -- as the title clearly states -- as if it were a legend. Twitchy-eyed character actor Pruitt Taylor Vince (Mumford, Beautiful Girls, Mississippi Burning) narrates the film in a portentous, self-important tone as Max, a wandering minstrel who hauls his trumpet onto The Virginian one day in search of a gig. He finds one and also lands himself a lifelong friend in the ship's oddball keyboard virtuoso.

The Legend of 1900 is less a story and more a collection of disjointed vignettes. As a post-World War II Max searches for his old buddy amid the crumbling ruins of an about-to-be-junked Virginian, he doles out a series of short reminiscences covering the strange life of 1900 to anyone and everyone who will listen. Our numerical hero meets a philosophical Italian immigrant, falls in love with an unknown girl, is challenged to a piano duel by Jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III).

Much like the recent musically oriented film The Red Violin, The Legend of 1900 treats history more as fantasy than reality. Unlike Don McKellar's rich epic, however, The Legend of 1900 seems strangled by its own concept. We're supposed to admire 1900 for his lifelong resolve to hide away from the big, scary world of the 20th century. But all the Spielbergian heart-tugging, sentimental music and lush cinematography can't hide the fact that there's little in the way of real magic here. When you boil it down, this is just the story of a guy who never gets off a boat. There's precious little to justify the film's heavy-handed fairy tale atmosphere. Cartoonish (poorly translated, perhaps?) dialogue and several incongruous doses of slapstick humor are strung throughout the film, further sucking gravity, believability and truth from the narrative. This is magical realism with little magic and only the faintest whiff of realism.

The acting, at least, is solid. Tim Roth carries the film well, displaying equal measures of naiveté and guileless behavior. The concept of "musical iconoclast without a home" is a romantic one, and the Brit thespian fills his character's shoes quite effectively. Even so, the film's script frequently shortchanges the actor, leaving him no real dramatic situations or genuine emotional experiences to work with.

The Legend of 1900 is a curious bit of cinema. Gorgeous cinematography, bright acting and an overwhelming air of romantic nostalgia make for some stellar highs. Unfortunately, the film's weightless treatment of its own subject matter cuts the film down to the level of a muddled fairy tale. It's like booking a cruise to Europe and ending up in Disney's Epcot Center -- it's still a fun trip and you get to see all the sights you expected, but there's just something missing.

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