Film: The Italian botched job

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The Legend of 1900 (15)

Giuseppe Tornatore; 125 mins

Cinema Paradiso (PG)

Giuseppe Tornatore; 120 mins

This week sees the release of Giuseppe Tornatore's new film The Legend of 1900 and the 10th-anniversary re-issue of his hysterically praised Cinema Paradiso. Seeing them together is fascinating, a virtual lesson in how easily one can turn from forgivably cheesy to sonorously fake.

The Legend of 1900 stars Tim Roth as Nineteen Hundred, a piano genius born that year on board the American ocean liner Virginian. He has never set foot on dry land. Nobody taught Nineteen Hundred to play the piano, so we must assume that he's able to impersonate Keith Jarrett through osmosis. He's also British, which is odd, because just about everybody else in the film is American (or pretending to be, badly). The story is told in flash-back through the eyes of Max, a fellow musician (Pruitt Taylor Vince), days before the Virginian is about to be sent to that great sardine-can factory in the sky. But Roth is still on board, pretending to play the piano in the decaying ballroom. He never disembarked, "because the streets have no end". Like, the sea does. But logic isn't foremost in Tornatore's mind. What use has he for logic when his heart is so big, when love is a chord played softly at dawn, when kisses glow like flowers, when dreamers drift together and share gentle chuckles? And so on.

The Legend of 1900 is astonishingly awful. A typical scene: baby Nineteen Hundred is surrounded by wry but jolly engine-stokers in the belly of the ship. "He'll grow up to be just another immigrant like us!" cries one. That they don't then break into a number from West Side Story ("I think I'll go back to San Juan! I know a boat you can get aan!") is plain wrong.

Max is called Max because it sounds like "Mac", and Tornatore loves names like "Mac", and "Pop". He loves cliche like a smoker loves 20 fresh Winstons. He has Roth gazing blankly at a pretty girl (in real life, a French model with under-age eyes, and lips that could double as bumpers) while playing a slow, lonely number. He has Roth sustaining the passengers in steerage with folk tunes (sadly, there's no Kate Winslet with her pint of Guinness). He has Roth competing with jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton and playing a completely barmy solo. Tornatore draws heavily on his doggy appreciation of Shine in this scene, and Roth is replete with David Helfgott-style sweat and wobbly eyes.

Sometimes Roth's hand-double just plays and plays. It fills the time, and of course Tornatore is struggling to make his film into one of epic length. Tornatore could never settle for making anything less than a Film That Makes Life Seem Authentic. As we learnt ad nauseam in Cinema Paradiso, he really does think he is on top of the things that make life bright and special. But he is not.

And Roth, for the most part, just looks flummoxed. And sometimes, he looks like nothing at all. He made me feel like the character in The Waste Land who appeals like this: "Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak." There has always been something superciliously calm about Roth, and without a sensible director to launch him into action, or into a cycle of ideas and struggles, he can just look very peculiar and very unlikely - like a head-banger without a wall.

I'm aware that if I diss Cinema Paradiso I may offend a lot of people, so I'll tone it down. First off, let me say that I cried my eyes out on my first viewing, so would never suggest that it does not have the power to move. For the few readers out there who are unfamiliar with the film, it's about a famous director remembering his youth in a Sicilian town, just after the Second World War. He recalls his friendship with Alfredo the local cinema projectionist (Philippe Noiret) and their mutual affair with the movies. Incidentally, the re-released version is not the director's cut, which is a somewhat bleaker film, in which Alfredo is revealed as a nihilistic meddler. This scaled-down version has plenty of adorable moments, all of which involve Noiret and his folded face, and the child actor Salvatore Cascio who looks like the kid in that early-1990s TV advert who squeaked, "When I grow up I want to be a tomato."

The film is rammed with cliches (peasants falling in love in the aisles, the village idiot who turns up and heckles) but they are nevertheless cleverly palatable. We love to be reminded of how much we love the cinema. Or perhaps more accurately, we love to be told how much we love the cinema, and assured that we, too can measure out our life in screen moments.

Cotton Mary is another gluey addition to producer-turned-director Ismail Merchant's personal repertoire, and his third film without James Ivory in six years. Set in India in the 1950s, it stars Madhur Jaffrey as Mary, a live-in nurse to a troubled new mother (Greta Scaachi) and her husband (James Wilby), a reporter who works for the BBC World Service. Unable to lactate, Scaachi is beside herself, and Mary exacts a kind of torture by whipping the child away from her at opportune moments.

Precisely why Anglo-Indian Mary is such a bitch is a mystery. Is her unreliable behaviour a metaphor for post-colonial India? Does Merchant believe we are this unsophisticated? And as for his trademark authenticity, surely he knows that the BBC World Service didn't exist until 1988; previously it was referred to as the External Services. A snotty point, but precisely the kind of misnomer that will drive the film's target audience nuts.

Hold Back the Night centres on an abused girl (Christine Tremarco) who hooks up with a terminally ill woman (Sheila Hancock) who is on her way to Orkney. The cast do well with the sketchy material, and although it's predictable stuff, the objective is tender.

The best thing about Disney's otherwise inane live-action film of the unaccountably well-loved children's cartoon Inspector Gadget is its star Matthew Broderick. He is cinema's Dorian Gray. At thirtysomething, his face is uncomplicated by even the finest of lines. Not one. And yet there's no hint of surgical tweaking. Broderick's bagless eyes are far and away the stars of the week.

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