Directed by Italy's Giuseppe Tornatore of "Cinema Paradiso," the film is a hopelessly romantic fable about a gifted pianist (Tim Roth) who was born on an ocean liner and never once set foot on land.
The story of this ocean-going nomad, who is known simply as 1900, is based on a dramatic monologue by Italian novelist Alessandro Baricco. The movie marks the English-language debut of Tornatore, who also wrote the tender, enigmatic, oddly slangy screenplay. Max (endearing Pruitt Taylor Vince), the jazz trumpeter who narrates 1900's life story, sounds more like one of Raymond Chandler's gumshoes than an aging hepcat nostalgic for the best years of his life.
Max, so hard up that he's pawning his trumpet, is about to leave the shop when the shopkeeper plays the only remaining copy of the only recording 1900 ever made. Upon learning that it came from a rusting ship scheduled for immediate destruction, Max rushes to the shipyard to stop the demolition crew. He's certain that 1900 is still aboard, but must use all of his storytelling powers to convince the crew that the musical virtuoso ever existed.
The legend begins when Danny Boodmann (delightful Bill Nunn), a burly stoker, discovers an abandoned newborn in the ship's first-class lounge. Since the child is born on the first day of the new century, Danny christens him 1900 and lovingly rears him in the ship's great belly. He slumbers peacefully in his tiny hammock as Danny and his crewmates feed the Virginian's engines.
When he eventually loses his adopted father, the devastated boy wanders into the lounge where Danny found him, crawls onto the piano bench and begins to play a mournful, perfectly executed elegy. Time passes quickly as it does in movies, and the prodigy has suddenly become a handsome, immaculately dressed, dizzyingly proficient musician.
It's 1927 when Max joins the band of the Virginian and first takes in one of 1900's astonishing performances: His hands move so fast that they seem to multiply and his instrument's strings literally get hot enough to smoke. Though 1900 cannot read or write music, his sound is universal (actually composed by four-time Oscar nominee Ennio Morricone) and knows no ethnic or stylistic boundaries. There's a theme song for every passenger who catches his eye and one for the many moods of Neptune.
Max tries to talk his friend into going ashore so he might share his sound with the world, gain wealth and fame and maybe meet the perfect girl. But unlike his melodies, 1900 isn't free. He's forever caught between here and there, perhaps fearful like the Little Mermaid that to step on land would silence his voice. Or maybe like so many landlubbers, he's simply afraid of change and ultimately of failure.
Roth, best known for playing thugs, is no stranger to tortured artists, having played van Gogh in Robert Altman's 1990 "Vincent & Theo." But van Gogh was not known for his tenderness, a quality much in evidence in Roth's work here. Furthermore, he has a fine way with a Steinway, looks grand in his swell threads and moves about the ship with the assurance of Rick in "Casablanca."
When it comes to his way with women, however, 1900 is awkward, even dumbstruck. (His adopted father told him a "mama" was a fast horse, and that's all he ever learned about the opposite sex.) Forever seduced by the sounds of the sea, there's only one "she" for him and that is the Virginian.
"The Legend of 1900" would have benefited from more story and less music, and tends to wear thin before it quite reaches the dock, but it is a ravishing film. "Titanic" should have looked so good.
The Legend of 1900 (110 minutes) is rated R for language.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company