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Amadeus (1984)
Added 2001-11-20
by Ronald Bruce Meyer

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Amadeus

Salieri:
I was staring through
the cage of those
meticulous ink strokes
at an absolute beauty.

This is magnificent movie-making. Amadeus richly deserves the seven Oscars it took home, including Best Picture, Best Director (Milos Forman, who made the excellent One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), Best Actor (F. Murray Abraham), and Best Screenplay (Peter Shaffer, based on his play). The story is richly illustrated with lavish sets and costumes, though Prague had to stand in for 18th century Vienna. (Mozart was no stranger to Prague.) The music is lush, with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields playing it as if we're hearing it for the first time. And, happily, we get to hear a lot of it.

But I don't think most viewers know what this film is about. Of course, it's nominally about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but the film covers only the last few years of his short life (he died at age 35). The film is marketed as a tale of murder, but there isn't enough evidence from even this speculative account to indict Antonio Salieri before any modern grand jury. Is it a story of revenge? Perhaps, but Mozart never did anything to offend Salieri... except...

Mozart was brilliant. Salieri was mediocre. What's more, Salieri knew Mozart was brilliant and that he was mediocre. And as the story develops in flashback, told by an aged Salieri, confined to a mental hospital after attempting suicide, we see that this is a story of mediocrity attempting every subterfuge to destroy brilliance. Didn't he, Salieri, renounce the pleasures of the flesh, and promise eternal piety, in exchange for the gift of music? How, then could God favor this "giggling, dirty-minded creature," this Mozart, over him?

Perhaps his obsession with destroying Mozart drove him mad. Wasn't Salieri, in fact, doing pretty well in life? He was wealthy, a court composer, the piano tutor of Emperor Joseph II (a delightfully bland Jeffrey Jones), well connected, the composer of 40 operas that fill the hall where they are performed. Why did Salieri hate Mozart so? Was it because Mozart (played by a delightfully silly Tom Hulce) dared where he only dreamed? Because Mozart seduced where he only lusted?

The story lives off of the complexity of human life: sometimes pious, sometimes bawdy, at times miraculous, but often cruel, indecent, unjust and even na´ve. And there is such depth in the telling that I watch it again and again, finding something new each time, even as I recite the dialog from memory: "From now on we are enemies, you and I," says Salieri as he burns a crucifix. "Because you choose for your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because you are unjust, unfair, unkind I will block you, I swear it. I will hinder and harm your creature on Earth as far as I am able. I will ruin your incarnation."

The film is long, but it takes time to build characters and to know them well. We meet Mozart's landlady, who turns out to be the inspiration for a character in his next opera. We meet his wife, Constanza (Elizabeth Berridge), and his demanding and hypercritical father, Leopold (Roy Dotrice, who also played a father figure in the TV series "Beauty and the Beast"). When Leopold dies, Mozart despairs, and then creates his "blackest opera," Don Giovanni, so that his father can continue to make demands, even from beyond the grave.

The frustrated Salieri schemes and dreams while Mozart lives an immoral life, yet creates immortal music. But, toward the end, Salieri finally sees his chance to triumph over God: "me, in the end, laughing at Him!" The plan is so simple: Salieri will steal the ailing composer's "Requiem" and play it at Mozart's own funeral! "Salieri has been touched by God," he predicts his colleagues will say; then to heaven he cries, "and God forced to listen!"

Ah, but God will have none of it. Snatching defeat from the arms of victory, the last laugh we hear is the disembodied drunken cackle of the childish savant. And Salieri suffers a fate worse than death -- the death of his music while he goes on living. As he confesses to his exhausted priest, perhaps the only distinction Salieri will claim in posterity is to be the patron saint of mediocrity.

It is sad that such a spectacular film, one worthy of Mozart himself, brought nothing much to its two leads in the seventeen years since its release. F. Murray Abraham has had some minor successes, usually playing a villain, in such films as The Name of the Rose (1986), Star Trek: Insurrection (1998), and Finding Forrester (2000). Aside from a bright spot in the 1990 TV movie Murder in Mississippi, which was kind of a precursor to Mississippi Burning (1988), Tom Hulce is nowhere to be seen -- though he can be heard as the voice of Quasimodo in the cartoon film Hunchback of Notre Dame (1998) and its sequel (coming in 2002). Still, Amadeus has brought together great subject matter, great direction and great performers. It remains, to my mind at least, an example of magnificent movie-making.

Amadeus (1984) 158 mins. (director's cut) Directed by Milos Forman. Written by Peter Shaffer (play and screenplay). Cast: F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri (court composer), Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Elizabeth Berridge as Constanze Mozart (his wife), Simon Callow as Emanuel Schikaneder (his librettist), Roy Dotrice as Leopold Mozart (his father), Christine Ebersole as Katerina Cavalieri (June Anderson, soprano voice), Jeffrey Jones as Emperor Joseph II, Charles Kay as Count Orsini-Rosenberg (director of the opera), Patrick Hines as Kappellmeister Bonno (member of the court), Jonathan Moore as Baron Van Swieten (member of the court), Kenny Baker as Parody Commendatore (vaudeville performer), Lisabeth Bartlett as Papagena (performer in "The Magic Flute"), Barbara Bryne as Frau Weber (his mother-in-law), Martin Cavina as Young Salieri, Milan Demjanenko as Karl Mozart (his son), Peter DiGesu as Francesco Salieri (Salieri's father), Cynthia Nixon as Lorl (Salieri's spy), Brian Pettifer as Hospital Attendant, Vincent Schiavelli as Salieri's Valet. Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Antonio Salieri -- Sir Neville Marriner, conductor, choreography by Twyla Tharp. Also known as: Amadeus: The Director's Cut (2002) (USA: director's cut); Peter Shaffer's Amadeus (1984) (USA: complete title)
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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.

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