We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Most filmmakers harbor dream projects, visions too impractical and too personal to realize. Occasionally, fortuitous circumstances—a surprise box-office hit, an admiring producer in search of a tax shelter—allow them to fulfill their dreams. As with so many answered prayers, the outcome is often a curse. The long-gestated movie turns out to be too obsessive, stylized, and protracted for audiences to absorb (some examples: Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America). In a vain attempt to avert financial catastrophe, the frightened producer butchers the movie and dumps the incoherent results into theaters. Fueled by advance reports of impending disaster, critics savage this alleged white elephant and moviegoers shun it. The director’s career is damaged, if not—as in some of the above cases—destroyed. Then, years later, a devoted cinephile restores the jettisoned footage and reissues the film, which is belatedly hailed as a visionary masterpiece.

Such, I fear, will be the fate of writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore’s strange, spellbinding The Legend of 1900. A decade ago, the filmmaker’s Cinema Paradiso narrowly escaped disaster. The movie flopped when initially released in Italy. Then the distributor excised 30 minutes of footage and, to everyone’s surprise, it won a Special Jury Prize at the 1989 Cannes Festival and the 1990 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Tornatore’s latest effort, his first English-language production, is unlikely to fare as well. Premiered late last year in Italy as The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean, the film, which ran just under three hours, was poorly received. Shorn of nearly an hour and most of its title, The Legend of 1900 now arrives in this country with a tarnished reputation and little fanfare.

Admittedly, Tornatore’s richly mounted fable about an artist’s uneasy relationship with the world beyond his imagination won’t prove to be everybody’s cup of brine. But, even in its abbreviated form, The Legend of 1900 dazzles the eyes, enchants the ears, and stirs the spirit. It may be a filmmaker’s folly, but it possesses a soaring grandeur that few contemporary movies can match. If you were less than enthralled by the technically accomplished but childishly written and acted Titanic, I’m confident that you’ll find this oceanic voyage far more rewarding.

Tornatore adapted his screenplay from Novecento, an hourlong dramatic monologue by novelist Alessandro Baricco that enjoyed a successful run as a one-actor theater piece in Milan. On the first day of the new century, coal stoker Danny Boodman (Bill Nunn) discovers a foundling on the first-class deck of the Virginian, an ocean liner that sails between Europe and New York. He secretly adopts the baby and names him 1900. The boy, who spends his childhood at sea, is orphaned when Danny dies in a shipboard accident. Discovered by the ship’s captain and threatened with expulsion, 1900 (Tim Roth) is saved by his self-taught musical skills. A piano prodigy, he is permitted to remain on board to entertain in the ship’s ornate top-deck lounge. Although he never leaves the Virginian, reports of 1900’s music reach Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III), the self-proclaimed “man who invented jazz,” who books passage on the liner in order to challenge 1900 to a piano duel. Years later, 1900’s infatuation with a beautiful young third-class passenger (Melanie Thierry) tempts him to set foot on land for the first time.

1900’s “legend” is narrated by Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a New Orleans trumpeter who was once the seafaring pianist’s friend and bandmate. In a dockside pawnshop, Max hears a scratchy recording by 1900 recovered from a rusting hulk awaiting demolition in the harbor. The ship is the Virginian, and Max feels certain that the pianist, now in his 40s, remains on board. He relates 1900’s story to the skeptical wrecking crew, attempting to persuade them to let him search the derelict vessel to rescue the reclusive pianist. Max finally succeeds, initiating the film’s climactic confrontation.

The Legend of 1900 is a rhapsodic exercise in pure cinema, at its strongest in extended, dialogue-free sequences constructed of images and music. The Virginian, created by production designer Francesco Frigeri, set decorator Bruno Cesari, and costume designer Maurizio Millenotti, is the film’s most eloquent presence, subtly reflecting changes in decor and fashion between the turn of the century and the 1940s. (After a long search, Tornatore and his production staff located a 39-year-old Russian vessel, dry-docked in Odessa, Russia, for the last decade, to serve as the movie’s primary set. He supplemented this with an elaborate six-deck replica of a section of the liner, constructed on a soundstage outside Rome.) Tornatore’s flashback structure juxtaposes tableaux of the Virginian at the apex of its fin de siecle sumptuousness with shots of the stripped, ruined vessel awaiting destruction. Without explicitly articulating the point, the filmmaker conveys how the passage of time erodes even man’s most glorious material achievements. For the soundtrack, Tornatore engaged the brilliant Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who has scored nearly 400 features. Combining elements of early-20th-century classical music (notably Satie and Gershwin) with Morton rags and original jazz-inflected pieces, Morricone’s luxuriant nonstop music dovetails with cinematographer’s Lajos Koltai’s darting, swirling camerawork to create aural and visual poetry.

Although The Legend of 1900 swarms with dress extras, it features only five substantial acting roles. Roth gives a remarkably subtle performance as 1900, capturing the mystery of a man without country or family whose entire identity stems from his art. As Max, less a developed character than an expedient narrative device, moon-faced Vince, a cross between Orson Welles and Jonathan Winters, struggles to flesh out a thankless role with occasional success. Nunn brings considerable warmth to the ill-fated Danny, and Williams is convincingly grandiose as the arrogant Morton. Radiant, full-lipped Thierry is fetching as the girl who captures 1900’s heart—a feat she accomplishes with only a few lines of dialogue and in spite of miscasting. (The actress’s French accent makes her difficult to accept as the daughter of an Italian immigrant. Perhaps an explanation for this anomaly appeared in the discarded footage.)

Tornatore devises fanciful sequences that convey the power of the creative impulse at its most fertile. In the midst of a tempestuous squall, 1900 plays a florid waltz as he and Max, seated at a grand piano, careen around the Virginian’s grand ballroom before crashing through a colorful stained-glass wall. Later, the pianist studies the faces of passengers and improvises music based on their demeanors. The showdown with Morton ends in an explosion of Eisensteinian montage with 1900 literally heating the keyboard strings to the point of ignition. On several occasions, 1900’s playing becomes so virtuosic that he magically sprouts an additional pair of arms to execute his musical ideas.

Regrettably, the director’s writing, at least in English, fails to equal his filmmaking skills. Much of the dialogue is stilted and naive, posing interpretive obstacles that only Roth manages to overcome. In early scenes, Tornatore’s overreliance on profanity is jarringly out of sync with his voluptuous imagery, and, intermittently, his screenplay is excessively explicit. 1900’s climactic speech, a meditation about the meaning of his life, runs on long after we understand his motives, and concludes the film on a flatly verbose note. Otherwise, I can only recall a few minor blemishes, several of which turn out to be subtleties rather than errors. Tornatore’s initial presentation of an abstract, somewhat surreal pasteboard Manhattan skyline appears to be the laughable result of botched art direction or a budgetary shortfall. But by the end of the movie, after 1900 explains why he has never disembarked from the Virginian—”Life is a ship too big for me”—we realize that we’ve observed New York from his intimidated perspective, which is why the mockup looks so unrealistic.

As much as I admire it, I know in my bones that The Legend of 1900 is doomed, destined to be roasted by reviewers who, oblivious to cinematic beauty, regard film as an extension of novels, plays, and other verbal media. Without critical endorsement, moviegoers are unlikely to flock to this esoteric fable whose sole dim box-office allure is Roth’s participation. I also suspect that, like Cinema Paradiso, it will ultimately be restored to its original running time in video format. But television screens, even the largest ones, cannot project the lavish detail of this extravagant production. Like other obsessive movies, this one can be fully experienced only in the medium for which it was created.

If I’ve convinced you to take a chance on The Legend of 1900, you need to be cautioned about the closing credits. In hope, no doubt, of duplicating the success of Celine Dion’s unbearable vocal version of the Titanic theme, the end-title crawl is accompanied by “Lost Boys Calling,” Morricone’s main theme, sung by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters (who also supplied the inane lyric) and played by—believe it or not—Eddie Van Halen. To avoid shattering the spell that Tornatore labored so hard to create, head for the exit as soon as you hear the first incongruous electric guitar lick. CP