An Artist of Note
Looking back at Amadeus, the first thing that comes to mind is the sad realization that it wouldn’t stand a chance in hell of being made today. A big-budgeted period piece about a well-known but fairly niche subject would be deemed far too financially risky in today’s timid Hollywood. How lucky we are, then, that this movie was made at all, since it’s the kind of auteur-driven, thrillingly original, and richly cinematic movie so rarely seen in modern theaters.
Amadeus is (and never pretends to be otherwise) a heavily fictionalized account of the relationship between musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) and his successful but infinitely less gifted counterpart Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). The movie opens with an elderly Salieri claiming to have murdered Mozart immediately before attempting suicide. Saved by his servants, he’s taken to a mental hospital where a young priest (Richard Frank) visits him to receive his confession. In the confines of his cell, Salieri recounts the events that ultimately brought about his destruction: from his youth spent dreaming of writing music worthy of God himself, to attaining the prestigious position of court composer for Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) in Vienna. This content period in his life comes to an abrupt end when he is introduced to Mozart, a boorish, immature, and remarkably talented young composer. Slowly consumed by envy, Salieri eventually resorts to ruthless, immoral acts in order to silence his foe.
At first glance, Amadeus’s most striking feature is its lavish costuming and production design, which captures both the beauty and garishness of high society in eighteenth-century Vienna. It’s a gorgeous movie, rendering its setting in transporting detail, yet shot with an understated confidence that never shows off or calls attention to itself. That the soundtrack is excellent is a given considering the source material, but Milos Forman’s masterful use of the music bears mentioning, the director using Mozart’s operas and symphonies to seamlessly score the various movements of both his and Salieri’s lives.
Avoiding the self-seriousness of many a historical drama, Amadeus has an irreverent, deadly sense of humor. Embracing the absurdity of its real-life contradictions, chief among them the dissonance between Mozart’s seemingly divine gifts and his unabashed vulgarity, the movie plays these ironies for laughs just as often as it does for pathos. Embodying this spirit is Tom Hulce, whose performance perfectly captures both the endearingly mischievous and insufferably glib aspects of Mozart’s personality, the mixture perfectly encapsulated in his shrill-yet-infectious falsetto giggle. Mozart is a character who – especially in the movie’s first half – is hard not to like in spite of himself. There’s something undeniably cathartic about watching him take a flamboyant, impish sledgehammer to the stuffy mores of the Viennese elite. As the story progresses, turning to Mozart’s financial woes and his deteriorating mental health, the character’s quirks seamlessly take on a tinge of sorrow, yet never completely lose their charm.
But most moving of all is F. Murray Abraham’s commanding lead performance. The esteemed actor creates a complex tragic figure in Salieri, who, despite his selfishness and misdeeds, is impossible not to sympathize with. Forced to endure countless small humiliations and constantly reminded of his inferiority, he’s tortured by the painful, irreconcilable truth that talent has little – if anything – to do with the quality of one’s character. Through Peter Shaffer’s eloquent screenplay and Abraham’s brilliant acting, Amadeus conveys Salieri’s impossible position of simultaneously being Mozart’s sincerest admirer and his most bitter rival, as well as the madness born of such a conflict.
The best thing I can say about Amadeus is that there’s virtually nothing wrong with it. Its storytelling is superb, weaving a riveting tale through the elegant framing device of Salieri’s confession. The musical performances are grandly staged, and because they play a key role in the plot, never feel extraneous. There’s not a weak link in the ensemble cast, their characters given various degrees of depth but none of them one-dimensional. Simply put, Amadeus is a masterpiece, hitting not a single false note from its intriguing beginning to its perfect, tragicomic ending.