The Legend of 1900 – Shorter, Somewhat Sweeter ‘Legend’

World-premiered in Locarno in the international version that Fine Line will open late October in the U.S., Giuseppe Tornatore's "The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean" undoubtedly shows improvements in the director's shortened cut, playing much less ponderously than at its original length. Nonetheless, most of its problems remain unresolved. Tornatore's Oscar-winning "Cinema Paradiso" dropped 32 minutes and an entire story chapter following its disastrous debut and went on to worldwide success. But the commercial future of this more ambitious English-language production seems less certain. Pic is set to screen at the Montreal, Toronto and San Sebastian film festivals.

World-premiered in Locarno in the international version that Fine Line will open late October in the U.S., Giuseppe Tornatore’s “The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean” undoubtedly shows improvements in the director’s shortened cut, playing much less ponderously than at its original length. Nonetheless, most of its problems remain unresolved. Tornatore’s Oscar-winning “Cinema Paradiso” dropped 32 minutes and an entire story chapter following its disastrous debut and went on to worldwide success. But the commercial future of this more ambitious English-language production seems less certain. Pic is set to screen at the Montreal, Toronto and San Sebastian film festivals.

Cut to comply with Fine Line’s contractual stipulation of a running time of under two hours, the new version clocks in at 116 minutes, or 54 minutes shorter than the edition successfully released in Italy late last year. While the Locarno print still carries the original title, the film’s moniker also will be trimmed for international release, to “The Legend of 1900.” (The original, 170 -minute version was reviewed in the Nov. 2-8, 1998, issue of Variety.)

Based on a stage monologue by Alessandro Baricco, the story tells of a foundling child abandoned on a piano in the first-class ballroom of a trans-Atlantic liner at the beginning of the century. Named 1900 by the engine-room stoker who finds and raises him, he becomes a virtuoso pianist (played by Tim Roth as an adult) who lives his entire life on the ship, never setting foot on land. His story is recounted years later, when the boat is about to be destroyed, by lifelong friend Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a trumpet player convinced that 1900 is still aboard the condemned vessel.

Tornatore’s fondness for inordinately long takes would appear to have simplified his task in the editing room. Rather than excising entire scenes, the director has merely shortened existing ones without removing anything significant from the narrative. Considerable tightening has been undertaken of the many long musical interludes — with composer Ennio Morricone collaborating to prune his score — and of the early reels dealing with 1900’s childhood, thus moving faster into the character’s adult years and the heart of the tale.

Also gone are some clumsy full-length shots of the ship at sea, which were compromised by poorly realized effects, while some of the numbing returns to Max years later have been eliminated. This last decision in particular helps increase dramatic momentum, which was plodding and more uneven in the original cut. Roth’s measured performance also benefits from the removal of surrounding flab, placing him more firmly at the center of the film. But crucially, Max remains a frustratingly ill-conceived character and Tornatore’s least successful invention in expanding Baricco’s slender text. Perhaps the key problem is that material that functions onstage in a piece running under an hour does not necessarily warrant inflation to these extremes.

The story’s questions regarding fear of the unknown and of the world’s infinite dimensions seem too fragile and intellectual a skeleton on which to hang a two-hour film. The climactic confession by 1900 of being confronted by this fear during his one attempt to disembark provides scant emotional reward in a generally unsatisfying final act that, even in the present version, remains over-extended. This scene and, indeed, most of the film could have benefited from further shearing of the lackluster dialogue that continually labors its points.

Despite Tornatore’s grand set pieces and Francesco Frigeri’s monumental production design, the material is at heart an intimate allegorical fairy tale about rarefied philosophical concerns. And even in this tighter form, it provides inadequate substance to justify the director’s exceedingly old-fashioned, Sergio Leone–style epic treatment.

The Legend of 1900 - Shorter, Somewhat Sweeter 'Legend'

(DRAMA -- ITALIAN)

Production: Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (noncompeting), Aug. 13, 1999.

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