For all the glory heaped on Hollywood, both by rosy-eyed moviegoers and Hollywood habitues themselves, American movie makers can learn a lot from their European counterparts on how to narrow the gap between commercial filmmaking and art. I saw The Legend of 1900 (Giuseppe Tornatore, director) and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Tom Tykwer, director) recently. To say that I was awed would be an understatement and I felt that the cliché that “you don’t have to shout to be noticed” has never been more apt.
Giuseppe Tornatore is an Italian director probably best known outside Europe for his 1989 film Nuovo Cinema Paradiso which won Hollywood’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in the same year. The Legend of 1900, based on the theater monologue by Alessandro Baricco, was released in 1998.
It tells the story of a baby abandoned on the SS Virginian who was adopted and raised by one of the ship’s coal men. The child, named Danny Boodman T. D. Lemon 1900 and nicknamed 1900 (played by English actor Tim Roth), showed an extraordinary gift for music and eventually joined the ship’s orchestra. From birth until his presumed death, 1900 never left the ship. He almost did once, went as far as halfway through the gangplank, but turned back. He learned languages and music trends from talking with passengers.
After World War II when the SS Virginian was no longer useful, it was scheduled to be blown up and sunk. Max Tooney, a trumpeteer and sometime member of the ship’s orchestra, begged the authorities to give him time to convince 1900, who he was certain was still living in the ship, to leave. To the very end, still daunted by the immensity of the world beyond the SS Virginian, 1900 refused to set foot outside the only world he had ever known. When the ship was blown up, 1900 was still inside.
The dreamy mood of the film was highlighted by the original score by Ennio Morricone who had also collaborated with Tornatore in Cinema Paradiso. The music was memorable, haunting at times, the cinematography was never glaring and the set design was wonderfully executed, lavish without the excessiveness that marked Titanic. There was no nudity, no sex, not even kissing, no daredevil stunts and no violence either.
The run time is 165 minutes, long enough to make most films boring and too tedious to watch, but there was no low point in Tornatore’s film.