WITH ITS antique title, hinting of the magic of myth and the remembrance of times gone by, writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore's "The Legend of 1900" sounds like it would be right up the alley of all those people (myself included) who fell in love with "Cinema Paradiso," the Italian filmmaker's Oscar-winning 1988 encomium to growing up at the movies. Oh, how I wanted to swoon again under the spell of this cinema poet's first-ever English language feature.
Alas, it was not to be. The problem is that there's precious little spell under which to stumble in this turgid, overlong and leaden "Legend," based on Alessandro Baricco's thin dramatic monologue about a man who spends his entire life on a boat.
The "1900" of the title is not a year but a man, played by Tim Roth, so-named because he was found as a baby on New Year's Day, 1900, apparantly abandoned by his mother after a night of carousing on board a swank ocean liner. At a loss as to what to call him, the coal stoker (Bill Nunn) who adopts and hides the baby in the bowels of the ship christens him "Danny Boodmann T.D. Lemon 1900," giving the child his own name in addition to the label of the citrus carton in which the boy was found and the year of his birth. That unwieldy moniker later gets shortened to the more manageable -- but no less bizarre -- 1900, but don't go looking for deep metaphorical import there. That way lies madness.
Maybe 1900, who grows to manhood and a career as a virtuosic jazz pianist without ever setting foot on dry land or taking a music lesson, is meant to represent the potential of the 20th century, but the symbolism is abstruse at best.
The overarching theme of the story, narrated in flashback by Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a friend of 1900's who played trumpet with him in the ship's orchestra, mainly concerns Max's efforts to get 1900 off the darned boat. But no can Max do. 1900 will leave neither for love -- of the mysteriously beautiful and unnamed Girl (French model Melanie Thierry) he briefly meets during one trans-Atlantic crossing -- nor money. Even though, in a cornily staged piano duel, the prodigy handily "defeats" Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III) and could easily parlay his musical gifts into fame and fortune.
What he may represent is something I shall call the Infinite Possibility of the Finite. When faced with the prospect of disembarking from his floating universe into the wilds of Manhattan, 1900 becomes emotionally paralyzed, but when restricted to the limits of the ship and the 88 keys of the piano his potential to create is boundless. Exactly how (or even whether) this significance is meant to tie in to some grander statement about the impotence of the modern age escapes me.
Told in a gritty, matter-of-fact manner, Tornatore's "fable" suffers from a lack of fabulousness, in the most literal sense of the word. Of course it's not meant to be taken as a documentary, and the tale is certainly not without its preposterous elements, among which is the fact that the actor who plays the young 1900 enters childhood sounding vaguely Italian, but Roth speaks with a proper British accent as an adult. This is especially odd considering that he was raised by an American (Nunn).
One exception to the film's dull luster is an early scene in which Max and 1900 are seen riding the bench of a rolling piano during a storm at sea as 1900 tinkles the ivories. After crashing through the stained-glass window of the ballroom, the out-of-control instrument and its passengers go careering down a stateroom-lined hallway as shoes laid out for the night skitter out of the way. It's delightful fantasy, truly the stuff that legends are made of.
Ultimately though, the film's windup is its biggest letdown. As he did with "Cinema Paradiso," Tornatore telegraphs the overblown ending of "Legend" well in advance. Unlike the earlier film's finish, where genuineness cut the saccharine aftertaste, "Legend's" grand finale feels forced -- not to mention more like a shot out of "Armageddon" than an art-house flick.
Why should anyone care whether 1900 ever gets off the boat? Tornatore -- and to a great degree even the usually great Roth, who plays his role with affectless inscrutability -- has created a monster of sorts. Unlike Frankenstein's monster, though, 1900 is a freak without sympathetic qualities. Even with the best intentions, you can't pull a poignant tragedy out of little more than a foregone conclusion.
THE LEGEND OF 1900 (R, 119 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and accidental death. At the Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle.