The Legend of 1900

Dec 1, 1999 at 12:00 am

Now, in a time of preoccupation with numbers and symbols (perhaps more than names), Giuseppe Tornatore thrusts this early-20th century myth like a thin, antique sword into the unconscious center of our premillennial anxiety. His metaphors loom as large as the charm of his quirky, moving genius of a main character.

1900 is not a year, but a person – a boy born on the first day of the 20th century and orphaned in the belly of a steamship, the Virginian, which carries European immigrants to their American dreams. A worker on the ship, Danny Boodman (Bill Nunn), discovers the infant in a lemon crate and adopts him.

Danny Boodman T.D. Lemon 1900, as he is officially christened, is almost forced to leave the ship when his adopted father, Danny, gets sick and dies, leaving the young boy with no one to hide or take care of him. From there, The Legend of 1900 works its magic with echoes of tragic genius films such as Shine, the power of childhood wonder that drives Torantore’s Cinema Paridiso and, most prevalently, volumes of folklore, fairy tales and myths.

Despite his misfortune, fate is on 1900’s side. When he sits down at the ship’s piano and proves he’s a musical prodigy, he is allowed to stay in the drifting world he loves. 1900 (Tim Roth) spends most of his life on the ship, making a legend of himself on land and piquing the interest of jazz great Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III), who boards the ship in order to challenge him to an exhausting piano duel.

Recalling America and Europe of 100 years ago, The Legend of 1900 revisits and departs from a past that is as enchanting and easy to identify with as it is distant and strange from our vantage point on the cusp of the next millennium. The story, told in recollections and the tale-spinning of a desperate, down-on-his-luck jazz musician named Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince), beckons the willing viewer to feel an era slipping away like Danny’s prepared body sliding over the side of the ship as he is buried at sea. As Max trifles through the empty vestiges of memory with a music store clerk who has discovered a rare, lost 1900 recording, his face and words evoke a sense of nostalgia and loss.

Besides these moving, universal and timely themes, Legend of 1900 offers stunning, contrasting images. Filmed mostly at sea, it earns the adjective "sweeping," bringing to the eye wide, breathtaking seascapes and dark, flame-lit scenes inside the ship – both of which mirror the duality of 1900 himself. His fame and musical talent reach legendary proportions, while his physical world remains small with only a porthole that looks out on the vastness of the world.

With a great musical score by Ennio Morricone, The Legend of 1900 is created from equal measures of the stark realities of passing time and cloaked visions of present and future – often blurring the line beautifully between truth and the ideal.

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