The Legend of 1900 (1999)

Written and Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, based on the monologue "Novecento" by Alessandro Baricco
Starring Tim Roth, Pruitt Taylor Vance, Clarence Williams III, Peter Vaughan, Bill Nunn

My Advice: Wait and Rent It.

Max (Vance) is down on his luck.  He's so far down he even pawns his trumpet, which got him on a ship one time called The Virginian.  It turns out he and the pawn shopkeeper (Vaughan) both have a connection to a man Max met onboard, 1900 (Roth).  1900, named for the year he was born, natch, was born and grew up on The Virginian, never once setting foot on land.  He turned out to be quite the piano prodigy as well, creating marvelous music on the fly, attracting the attention of such players as Jelly Roll Morton (Williams).  But as the story of 1900 gets played out in Max's mind, in the present he begins a journey to try and track down his old friend…and possibly save him as well.

This film is billed as a fable, and it's a pretty good one.  There are moments of absolute magic, which had me laughing out loud.  One example is Roth playing a grand piano, which happens to be rolling to and fro in a pitching ballroom.  There is also a wonderful piano duel between 1900 and Jelly Roll, a scene which is played with unflinching intensity by both Roth and Williams.  Big, over the top, and theatrical, it is clearly the high point of the film.  But it's the moments in between that make the film lag, if for no other reason that they feel so lacking in the qualities that made the aforementioned two scenes so grand.

For example, when a young girl (Melanie Thierry) catches the eye of 1900, he is so completely lost as to how to proceed; it's almost painful to watch.  The explanation given finally as to why he is the way he is, and why he never ventures out on land, seems a little frail given his choices.  Sit on a ship and play piano or go chase after someone as beautiful as the young Thierry.  A tragedy, just one I don't necessarily understand.

Back on the upside, Roth and Williams are by far the standouts of the film.  The effects used to substitute an expert pianist's hands for theirs are amazing.  I was so convinced I found myself wondering if either one was like Dudley Moore, fine actors who are also musically gifted.  Vance's narrator trumpet player is handily brought to life as well, and it's good to see such a good character actor get a chance to shine.  However, because of its uneven nature and slow points, I would have to relegate this one to the level of "good rental."  Catch it at home.

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