May 18, 2012
Amadeus (1984)
Grade: 54/100

Director: Milos Forman
Stars: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge

What it's about. This remarkably successful film depicts a fictional relationship between the real-life characters of Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) and Mozart (Tom Hulce). Salieri, originally from Italy, is the court composer of Austrian emperor Joseph II (engagingly performed by Jeffrey Jones). Joseph's kindom is so peaceful and prosperous that he apparently devotes all his energy to music and the theater.

Salieri enjoys his position until young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) arrives in Salzburg. Salieri becomes jealous of the impudent but spectacularly talented Mozart.

Fortunately, Mozart has problems that Salieri can exploit. Mozart spends all his money on entertaining, causing friction between him and his comely wife Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge). Mozart's works prove too cerebral for Austrian aristocracy. Mozart also suffers from the disapproval of his humorless father and mentor Leopold (Roy Dotrice).

Salieri plots to kill Amadeus through the unlikely-to-succeed method of giving him money to write a funeral mass. Because it is a movie, Amadeus thinks the eulogy is commissioned by the ghost of his deceased father, and his health goes straight downhill.

Salieri lives for decades afterward, eventually driven mad by his still-seething guilt and jealousy. He attempts suicide, is committed to an asylum, and is attended to by preternaturally patient young cleric Father Vogler (Richard Frank).

Familiar faces Cynthia Nixon and Vincent Schiavelli have small roles respectively as Mozart's maid and Salieri's caretaker.

How others will see it. The phenomenally successful Amadeus received rave reviews and returned multiples of its production costs, both at the box office and in video sales. The movie won eight Oscars, sweeping most major categories including best picture, best director, best screenplay, and best actor.

The film remains extremely popular today. It has a whopping 133K user votes, and the user ratings are uncommonly high with an average of 8.4. This average is sufficient to place the movie within that website's Top 250. The only demographic not totally sold on the movie is women over 45, which award the film a nonetheless respectable 7.7.

Musicians are impressed with the synchronization between the soundtrack and the cinematography. This was partly accomplished by Hulce actually playing the piano, harpsichord, etc., and by expert dubbing during post-production.

Naysayers grouse about historical inaccuracy, since Salieri's obsession with Mozart is a cinematic invention. They also complain about the three leads being Americans instead of Europeans, which makes the accents (as well as the language) all wrong. But the theme and casting were shrewd moves commercially if not artistically. Most viewers are completely won over by this well-made costume drama, and could not care less how credible Hulce and Berridge are in their roles.

How I felt about it. Director Milos Forman was previously best known for the sublime One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which dominated the 1976 Oscars ceremony. He has made other fine films as well (Valmont, The People vs. Larry Flynt) and was the right man for the job of directing Amadeus. It has to be said, as well, that Abraham, at the time an obscure character actor, does a good job as the lead.

If Amadeus is not quite a good movie, and it isn't, the blame primarily rests on Peter Shaffer, who wrote both the screenplay and its source play. Salieri helps Mozart more than hurts him, giving him money when he is broke and paying for a maid that allows him to maintain a requisite standard of living. If Mozart is self-destructive, surely that is not the fault of Salieri.

Besides, Salieri's station is ensured. Emperor Joseph likes Salieri's work and lacks the musical ability to be impressed by Mozart's talent. Meanwhile, Mozart's behavior precludes him from taking Salieri's place. The court has an Italian clique, led by Count Orsini-Rosenberg (Charles Kay), that despises Mozart.

If Salieri does not fear Mozart, and is entranced by his compositions, then he should not wish to destroy him. Instead, he would want to learn from him. So, Salieri's motivation is all wrong, both during Mozart's day and many years later, when nothing much is expected of the eldery Salieri and he can enjoy music and composition at leisure.

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