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The Legend of 1900

La Legenda del Pianista Sull’Oceano

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore

Written by Giuseppe Tornatore, based on a novel Novecento by Alessandro Baricco

With Tim Roth, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Clarence Williams III

It’s dangerous to take a long movie and chop it to make it shorter. Such a fate befell Guiseppe Tornatore’s new film, The Legend of 1900. Despite the obvious cinematic strengths and exceptional visuals, the film -- especially in its last third -- feels inconsistent, uneven, and choppy; I could almost see the scissor marks on the celluloid.

Commercialism is to blame, of course. After the success of Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (which was also truncated from the 170 minute-long director’s cut to the still magical but rather uneven 123 minute-long version), 1900 was financed by the Hollywood studio New Line films. The studio demanded that the film be in English and that the length be under two hours, so the exhibitors could fit in an extra showing per day. Both of these backfired. As for the film’s length, Tornatore’s cut was 160 minutes, and the studio chopped off 40 of those. Whoever did it (and it was not the author/director himself, who strenuously opposed the changes) clearly didn’t understand the film; the cut that can be seen in American theatres, concentrates on the story. And it just so happens that the story is by far the least important element of this film.

It can also be summarized in one short sentence: a man with the peculiar name of 1900 (Tim Roth, best known as Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs and Ringo in Pulp Fiction) is born on a huge oceanic liner, and never leaves it for his whole life, crossing the ocean voyage after voyage, playing the piano for passengers. That’s it, really; 1900 is clearly a European film, with its artistic sensibility being a far cry from the story-centered mainstream American cinema.

The main strength of 1900 lies in its images, and here the film is remarkable. While not the instant classic that Cinema Paradiso was, it nevertheless manages several brilliant sequences. There’s the impossible, diffused-through-the-glass shot when 1900 first sees his destiny manifested in the form of a grand piano. There’s the wildly cinematic scene of an improvisation, played on a piano which is rolling around the ballroom floor while the ship is tossed around by a storm. There’s the film’s exuberant centerpiece, a piano duel with famous Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III), which culminates in a thrillingly theatrical gesture.

When Tornatore throws such pieces at the viewer, he’s at the top of his game, and it’s obvious that this is a work of one of the world’s most exciting film directors. As a screenwriter, though, he is less impressive, clearly hobbled by the necessity to write the dialogue in English. There’s not much dialogue, sure; but what is there sounds rather bland. As a matter of fact, most of the time I wished 1900 were a silent film: the power of the images is astounding, and the dialogue only tends to dilute the impact. Even the title suffered: the Italian version has the long but clear name La Legenda del Pianista Sull’Oceano (The Legend of a Pianist on the Ocean).

The actors, too, seem to feel much more at ease when they can just be: Tim Roth, Clarence Williams III, and Pruitt Taylor Vince as the film’s narrator have a certain texture in their portrayals, and they are perfectly convincing (especially Roth when he’s playing the piano; I didn’t doubt for a second that he’s a brilliant virtuoso). That is, they are convincing until they start speaking: then they betray the fact that none of them really plays a character per se; they are merely abstractions, Magritte-like faceless figures existing mostly to contrast with the much more vivid background imagery.

And then, of course, there’s the story, or rather absence of such. It proceeds at a leisurely pace and intentionally omits essential plot points (for example, the film totally sidesteps the question of how its protagonist learned to play the piano) but isn’t the film’s major weakness.

1900 is most enjoyable when it can be merely observed, marveling at its beauty, without much of an emotional connection. I can only guess that the director’s cut (which I haven’t seen) enhances this observational quality. The American version, however, seems to shoehorn this film into a standard narrative form, and this feels more and more forced as the film progresses, with the long stretches of sublime introspection getting less and less clear, and the editing becoming messier by the minute.

I hope Tornatore’s next film will be in Italian, and as long as the director wants it to be. Otherwise, the result will be very much like The Legend of 1900: a film forced to be something that it is not.