Amadeus (1984)



(director/writer: Milos Forman; screenwriter: based on the play by Peter Shaffer/Peter Shaffer; cinematographer: Miroslav Ondricek; editor: Nena Danevic; music: Mozart; cast: F. Murray Abraham (Antonio Salieri), Tom Hulce (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), Elizabeth Berridge (Constance Mozart), Simon Callow (Emanuel Schikaneder), Roy Dotrice (Leopold Mozart), Christine Ebersold (Katerina Cavalieri), Jeffrey Jones (Emperor Joseph II); Runtime: 160; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Saul Zaentz; Warner Brothers; 1984)

Not a bust, but less absorbing when all the Europeans talk Americanese.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Milos Forman (“Loves of a Blonde”/”One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”) returns to his native Prague, after leaving in 1968, to direct and write the adaption of Peter Shaffer’s 1979 Tony Award-winning Broadway hit Amadeus. He uses his regular cinematographer and fellow Czech expatriate, Miroslav Ondricek. This highly fictionalized account of the life of 18th-century composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ends up playing as a finely tuned cultural presentation that provides the ABCs in music appreciation 101, Freudian psychology 101, and also throws in a diverting pulp mystery plot. It has been highly overrated by both the public and critics, though it helps itself greatly by making some perceptive comments about Mozart’s personal life and his work. Yet it seems strained and too theatrical in its forced attempt to reach any higher notes. Not a bust, but less absorbing when all the Europeans talk Americanese and the filmmaker tries to speak for the untalented by putting tinny words in the mouths of such satirical figures. Trying to level the playing field by bringing the high-brow arts down to the middle-brow audience has its disadvantages, as this commercial venture gets its more educational priorities all tangled up.

Amadeus only covers the last 10 years of Mozart’s life — from 1781 until 1791 — a time spent primarily in Vienna. The film contrasts the composing genius of Mozart (Tom Hulce) with the far less talented but nevertheless accomplished Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), as Mozart seems weighed down with worldly burdens because of his enormous talent. Court composer Salieri, on the other hand, turns into a spiteful monster who aims to ruin Mozart. Through it all, Salieri appears as a misguided tragic figure who earns the viewer’s sympathy because they can more easily identify with his ambitions than with Mozart’s genius. Salieri worships music as divine, yet can never reach the level Mozart has climbed. It pains Salieri that a vulgarian like Mozart was graced by God with such talent and not such an effete as himself, who fully understands how important is the music.

The aging royal composer Salieri tells his tale to a priest from the insides of an insane asylum as he recalls the events of three decades earlier, when he first heard about the child prodigy performing for the European nobility. Salieri wasn’t to meet Mozart until 1781, when the boastful libertine genius was 26, and jealously saw him gain favor in the court of Austrian emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones). To compensate for his shortcomings in talent, the cunning Salieri uses his influence in court to sabotage the young composer’s career. Disguising himself as a mysterious benefactor Salieri commissions “Requiem,” which eventually costs Mozart his life. It came at a time when Mozart’s uneducated wife Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge) deserted him with his child, and the poverty-stricken and depressed composer unwisely reached out for help from Salieri. The twisted Italian mentions that he poisoned Mozart, who died at 35 under mysterious circumstances and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

The film’s great success is that it reaches a wider audience than just classical music listeners. Amadeus won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor for F. Murray Abraham.