It’s usually a good idea to avoid anything billed as ”a fable,” but The Legend of 1900 offers almost enough merits to warrant an exception. As this unsteady saga from director Giuseppe Tornatore (”Cinema Paradiso”) opens, a baby is abandoned on board a transatlantic ocean liner. Named for the year of his birth, 1900 grows up to be a world-class pianist (Tim Roth) without ever setting foot on dry land.
Even though most of its dialogue is in English, the movie floats on foreign-film clichés: the adorably grubby urchin (Cory Buck as the young 1900), the exotically beautiful muse (Melanie Thierry as the siren who tempts him to jump ship), the Euro-saccharine score (by Ennio Morricone, shockingly).
Yet a trio of fine performances keeps it from curdling into magical schmaltz. Roth projects a disarmingly elegant presence, and he’s equaled by Clarence Williams III as jazzman Jelly Roll Morton, who challenges 1900 to a piano showdown in the film’s exuberant centerpiece. As the trumpet-blowing narrator, Pruitt Taylor Vince (”Heavy”) lends dramatic heft, even when asked to enact a slapstick seasickness scene more suited to the late Chris Farley.