Giuseppe Tornatore, the writer and director of the 1988 Academy Award winner Cinema Paradiso, has adapted Alessandro Baricco's philosophical fable about modernity as his first English language production. An orphan baby abandoned on the Virginian, a transatlantic steamer, is raised on the ship by an engine room stoker (Bill Nunn) who calls him "1900." The young boy grows up watching immigrants from Europe rejoice at the first sight of the Statue of Liberty. 1900 (Tim Roth) eventually discovers his talent as a virtuoso pianist and entertains guests on the ship with his jazz compositions.

Later, Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a vagabond trumpet player, who was 1900's best friend for many years, comes across the musician's one-and-only record in a pawnshop in England. He regales the owner of the store with an account of 1900's piano duel with Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III), the African-American who invented jazz. Max also remembers a beautiful young woman (Melanie Thierry) who inspired the lyrical compositions on his record. Realizing that 1900 might still be aboard the ship, which is scheduled to be demolished, Max goes in search of his friend on the time ravaged Virginian.

This philosophical fable uses the pastiche personality of 1900 as a symbol for the twentieth century loss of self. His life is lived out as a series of incoherent posturings and fragmented relationships. With no sense of a secure identity, 1900 is unwilling to venture out into a world beyond the ship. He is a lost and lonely soul without any place to really call home.