WFTB Score: 19/20
The plot: After attempting suicide, diligent but uninspired composer Antonio Salieri is committed to an asylum, where he confesses to a callow priest his part in destroying Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the composer with possibly the greatest God-given talent that the world has ever known.
Some films have the odds so heavily skewed in their favour that it seems almost unfair. Take Amadeus, for example: an intriguing story, given humour and drama by Peter Shaffer, shot by an award-winning director, and with a soundtrack that any film would kill for. Although films occasionally have everything in the world going for them and still turn out rotten, thankfully this is far from the case here. This film won eight Oscars back in 1985 and deserved every single one.
I make mention in other reviews that some films adapted from plays and musicals do not ‘open out’ the action from the stage a great deal. Forman opens out the action of Amadeus the play immensely, to show us late 18th Century Vienna (actually Prague, standing in nicely) in all its opulent, wig-wearing society. In this society the Emperor Josef (Jeffrey Jones) patronises the arts in his own ignorant fashion, showing particular favour to Salieri (F Murray Abraham), a competent composer whose life is turned upside-down by the arrival of Mozart (Tom Hulce). Mozart is known to be an extraordinary composer, but Salieri also finds him to be a randy, foul-mouthed creature with a grating hyena laugh. Outraged that God has blessed such a man with the divine music that Salieri cannot create, and that Mozart has violated the soprano Salieri had his eye on, the Italian vows revenge on God by hindering Mozart’s progress in Vienna and ultimately destroying him.
Importantly, the key things about the film are done incredibly well. Mozart’s music, which is deployed intelligently throughout, is beautifully played by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (conducted by Sir Neville Marriner), and the operas are lavishly and effectively staged: even Salieri’s work is given a decent airing, enabling the viewer to make comparisons between the two men. Also, Abraham is superb, both as the younger Salieri who cannot help his admiration for Mozart’s work at the same time as despising the man, and as the old, mad Salieri relishing in the discomfort of his confessor as he tells the tale.
There are those who will complain about the portrayal of Mozart, not just as a pleasure-seeking dolt but an American one at that, and have similar problems with Elizabeth Berridge as his wife Constanze. However, it is necessary for the plot to be successful that Mozart is both outrageously talented and deeply flawed; and among the international cast, portraying Austrians, Germans and Italians, there is always going to be some compromising of who sounds like what. Personally, I found I got used to both Hulce and Berridge quite quickly, especially since Hulce effectively conveys that whatever else he refuses to take seriously, Mozart’s music is everything to him.
Another common complaint is that the film (like the play) has little basis in fact, and it is true that there is no evidence that Salieri had anything to do with Mozart’s death; he did not commission the Requiem mass and certainly did not help him to transcribe it. However, as dramatic devices all these things work superbly to heighten the sense of Salieri’s obsession. Also, the later part of the film contains some fabulous musical moments in showing Mozart at work on both the Requiem and The Magic Flute; the deconstruction of the Requiem’s Confutatis is sublime, even allowing for American terms such as ‘measure’ and ‘eighth-notes,’ and the disposal of Mozart’s body to the Lacrymosa (the last music Mozart wrote) heartbreaking.
Just a quick note on the 2001 Special Edition: by and large, this doesn’t add a great deal to the original release, extending some scenes and adding new ones which detail Mozart’s attempts to get pupils, an exercise in which Salieri proves disruptive. What is new and important is an extension of the scene where Constanze, newly married, asks Salieri to lobby on Mozart’s behalf for an important teaching job. In the Special Edition (as in the play), Salieri tells Constanze to come back – alone – later on; she does so and undresses, whereupon the composer storms off, fuming. This is interesting as it alters our view of both characters, and although I do not think the scene is necessary, once you have watched the version with it in, you kind of miss it.
I wouldn’t pretend that Amadeus is a film for everyone, and an appreciation of period dramas, classical music and (ideally) Mozart will obviously help in the enjoyment of this film. But everyone should at least give it a go, for F Murray Abraham’s frightening portrayal of Salieri if nothing else. Salieri describes himself as the ‘patron saint of mediocrities,’ but there is nothing mediocre about Amadeus.