Giuseppe Tornatore's first English-language feature, "The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean," is a project of uncommon scope and ambition by Italian standards. Chronicling the extraordinary life of a virtuoso musician, this watery epic displays many of the same strengths and weaknesses that have characterized the director's previous work.

Giuseppe Tornatore’s first English-language feature, “The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean,” is a project of uncommon scope and ambition by Italian standards, a physically imposing production reportedly costing upward of $20 million. Chronicling the extraordinary life of a virtuoso musician born at the dawn of the century on a trans-Atlantic steamer from which he never goes ashore, this watery epic displays many of the same strengths and weaknesses that have characterized the director’s previous work, notably great technical skill and a strong visual sense, but a tendency for long-windedness and sentimental overkill.

Clouding the film’s commercial fate is uncertainty about the involvement of audiences in general and Americans in particular by an often ponderous drama that revolves purely around existential questions regarding fear of life, of the world and of the infinite unknown. Perhaps even more of a limitation, however, is a problematic central character who serves as a narrator and guide through the four-decade-long story, and who crucially fails to provide emotional access to its rarefied concerns.

Considerably overlong at nearly three hours in its Italian-release version, the film appears likely to undergo — and benefit from — further cuts before opening through Fine Line in the U.S. next year. The director’s work suffers from the absence of a strong producer like the late Franco Cristaldi, who was instrumental in whittling down the similarly distended original-release version of “Cinema Paradiso” into the more concise cut that won global success and an Oscar for foreign-language film. Miramax also recut Tornatore’s last feature, “The Star Maker.”

The “Pianist” source material, adapted by Tornatore, was popular Italian writer Alessandro Baricco’s stage monologue “Novecento,” nuggets of which survive in the film’s voiceover narration. The title character is an orphan left in a lemon crate on the grand piano of the first-class ballroom of passenger ship the Virginian, presumably by penniless parents from the lower decks.

The baby is found and raised by a jovial machinist (Bill Nunn), who names him Danny Boodmann T.D. Lemon Nineteenhundred, respectively after himself, the brand of lemons and the new century that has just begun.

Following his adoptive father’s death, Danny (played as a child by Easton Gage and Cory Buck and as an adult by Tim Roth) successfully foils the captain’s attempts to send him ashore to an orphanage. Revealing an instinctive talent for tickling the ivories, he starts playing jazz and traditional dance music upstairs for well-heeled passengers, and florid, unconventional tunes of his own invention downstairs for the huddled masses of immigrants en route to the new world.

Word of his bravura playing spreads, at one point luring the so-called father of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III in a richly imperious turn), aboard to challenge the upstart to a musical duel in perhaps the film’s most entertaining set piece. But despite the offer of recording contracts and concert tours, Danny steadfastly declines to leave his floating world for the real one, which holds too many unanswered questions for him.

He comes closest to going ashore after falling for a Gotham-bound Italian girl (Melanie Thierry), but his apprehension prevents him from taking the final steps.

The film aims for closer kinship to Fellini’s “And the Ship Sails On” than to “Titanic,” and has its share of poetic sequences: Danny gliding around the ballroom on the unsecured grand piano during a storm at sea; his series of impromptu compositions inspired by reading the faces of his audience; chairs and shoes dancing in the corridors as the ship is tossed about on the waves.

Tornatore’s nostalgia for a cinema of bygone days has never been more apparent than here, and he deliberately evokes the spirit of silent movies in the film’s naivete and its sentimentalized vision. But despite a low-key strain of Chaplinesque comedy, the material cries out for a more infectious sense of humor.

In expanding Baricco’s slender, dreamlike text, Tornatore has neglected to beef up its narrative body or provide it with any real heart, and his dialogue too often sounds translated, retaining a flowery, Italianate ring. The script’s major innovation is two new characters, neither of whom is satisfyingly developed.

One is the Italian girl; arriving almost two hours into the story, she remains merely an ephemeral presence. Even less effective is the narrator, trumpet player Max. Despite actor Pruitt Taylor Vince’s sympathetic reading, the uninteresting character is too inadequately established to convey a sense of the bond between him and Danny, consequently denying the film an emotional hook.

The schematic structure Tornatore uses to elaborate the episodic tale is perhaps its biggest weakness. By continually returning to Max as he tells Danny’s story years later, the film’s themes are diluted, in the end carrying far too little weight to justify its bloated dimensions. Similarly, the director’s taste for syrupy excess has prompted him to strenuously crank up the emotions from the beginning, compromising the impact of the closing stretch’s more legitimately poignant moments.

Roth makes Danny both playful and soulful, innocent and oddly wise after 30 years of observing the world pass by under his nose; the character’s remoteness from the real world and the fact that no official record of his life exists in any country is used repeatedly to underline the legendary, fairy-tale aspect of the story. But while the actor convincingly fakes the keyboard skills, his performance is cramped by awkward dialogue and by Danny being more of a symbol for philosophical musings than a flesh-and-blood character.

Visually, “Legend” is consistently impressive. Its hefty budget is amply apparent in Francesco Frigeri’s grand-scale production design, which creates a textured microcosmic universe from the swanky upper decks to the hellish furnace rooms, and Maurizio Millenotti’s finely detailed costumes, with sets and costumes illustrated to full advantage by Lajos Koltai’s sure-footed widescreen lensing.

The choice to depict terra firma — the port and skyline of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty — with a monochromatic, storybook feel, and the shipboard scenes in more realist terms works well. Effects generally are polished, aside from some full-length shots of the ship at sea, presumably intended to have a fake, fairy-tale look.

Perhaps the film’s most vital element is music, which ranges from brilliantly executed ragtime and jazz classics to Ennio Morricone’s complex piano compositions. These are perhaps overused, however, with Danny’s frequent spells at the keyboard becoming repetitive and contributing to the film’s over-extendedness.

The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean

Italian

Production

A Fine Line Features (in U.S.)/Medusa Film (in Italy) release of a Medusa Film production made by Sciarlo. (International sales: New Line Intl., Los Angeles.) Executive producer, Laura Fattori. Directed, written by Giuseppe Tornatore, adapted from the stage monologue "Novecento," by Alessandro Baricco.

Crew

Camera (Cinecitta color, Technovision widescreen), Lajos Koltai; editor, Massimo Quaglia; music, Ennio Morricone; production designer, Francesco Frigeri; set decorator, Bruno Cesari; costume designer, Maurizio Millenotti; sound (Dolby Digital), Roberto Petrozzi; digital visual effects supervisor, David Bush; production coordinators, Pietro Notarianni, Francesco Tornatore; assistant director, Fabrizio Sergenti Castellani; casting, Castellani, Jeremy Zimmermann, Valerie McCafrey. Reviewed at Cinecitta, Cinefonico screening room, Rome, Oct. 26, 1998. Running time: 170 MIN.

With

Nineteenhundred - Tim Roth Max - Pruitt Taylor Vince The Girl - Melanie Thierry Danny Boodmann - Bill Nunn Music store owner - Peter Vaughan Harbor chief - Niall O'Brien Mexican machinist - Alberto Vasquez Jelly Roll Morton - Clarence Williams III Farmer - Gabrielle Lavia
With: Cory Buck, Norman Chancher, Harry Ditson, Easton Gage, Kevin McNally, Heathcote Williams. (English dialogue)

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more