Amadeus had all the markings of a pretentious little art film – After all, how could a biography of Mozart not seem dull? But nothing could be further from the truth . . .
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died mysteriously in 1791 at the age of 35. Thirty-two years later a mediocre, forgotten composer named Antonio Salieri attempted suicide and was dragged off to an insane asylum claiming to be the man who murdered him.
How much is truth and how much is fantasy? What really happened? These are the questions Milos Forman addresses in Amadeus – the big, expensive, but ultimately exhausting film Peter Shaffer adapted from his London and Broadway stage successes.
Quite a few historical liberties occur in Amadeus, but they are liberties that had to be taken because most of the movie is depicted from the point of view of Salieri (F Murray Abraham), Mozart’s main musical rival.
This works very well because it allows the viewer to appreciate Mozart without the film being overly pedantic.
We see the powdered, giggling Mozart, a ridiculous mess, work his way up to a cherished position in the court while Salieri watches his own position as the official court composer usurped by the arrogant young visitor from Salzburg.
As Salieri is ridiculed by the obnoxious brat Mozart in front of his own king, the first seeds of hate are sown almost from the two composers’ introduction.
Missing no opportunity to wreck his rival’s career and ruin his health, Salieri simultaneously worships him as a musical genius, thus we have the tragedy of a mediocre talent surpassed by a great talent who was a mediocre person.
Salieri constructs the ultimate revenge against Mozart’s God-given talent. He anonymously commissions the brilliant composer to write a requiem mass, then plans to murder him and unveil the mass at Mozart’s funeral, claiming the work as his own.
Abraham justifiably won the 1984 Best Actor Oscar for his multifaceted performance as Salieri. He portrays the inner demons in the man and his obsessions without making him into a caricature; he keeps him accessible and likeable, no matter how conflicted he becomes.
As Mozart himself, Tom Hulce does a very good job, though he may go just a little too far at times. He usually cannot display the subtleties of the character’s various emotions as well as Abraham does, but it remains a strong performance. Hulce also adds a touching sense of innocence and naïveté that helps make his scenes with Abraham more effective.
Elizabeth Berridge, who plays Constanze, Mozart’s wife, is a total disaster. With her pinched, metallic voice and her community theatre artistry, it doesn’t matter how much she pinches her bodice into one of the low-cut Viennese gowns. She still looks and sounds and acts like a preppie schoolgirl who got lost on her way to a Michael Jackson concert.
With all the pomp and pageantry, there are painfully dull stretches, especially the midsection of the film, which includes some clumsy stagings of the Mozart operas themselves.
Extraneous subplots are introduced and abandoned. We really don’t need to know how Mozart’s father got worked in his operas, or how Mrs Mozart balanced the books. And there’s entirely too much music.
Filmed at a gargantuan expense in Prague, the film drips with opulence in its recreation of 18th-century Vienna.
From the howling madhouse (where Salieri tells the story in flashback to a visiting priest) to the masked balls of the royal court, Amadeus spares no cost in filling the screen with flashy sets, glittering costumes, and what seems like more extras than there were subjects in the Austrian Empire.
There was clearly some fine research into Mozart’s annoying personality, but the entire premise of this film – that Salieri loathed Mozart and plotted his demise – is historically untrue. Still, if it’s majesty you’re after, Amadeus is a visual treat.
F Murray Abraham
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Emperor Joseph II
Count Von Strack