Perhaps the most important thing to know about Peter Shaffer’s film adaptation of his own stage-play “Amadeus” is that it’s a work of fiction, not a biography. And even though it’s often billed as an outrageous comedy, the film is on fact one of the most fascinating portrayals of genius, madness, disillusionment, god and ultimately psychological murder. Found after an attempted suicide in his Viennese lodgings, composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) recounts the tale of the child prodigy he both loved and hated: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his rise through the ranks at court and his ultimate demise at the hands of both a Salieri consumed by jealousy and himself.
Director Milos Forman (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) has once again created a masterpiece of cinema, down to every last detail. Filmed in his homeland, Prague before the fall of the iron curtain looks remarkably like 18th Century Vienna, the opera sequences recreated with the utmost care (a visit to the IMDb trivia page is advised), the sumptuous costumes, everything. Yet Forman gives everything a slightly mad edge, for example Mozart’s demented behaviour and wigs clashing, or the fact he let the actors keep their American accents, thus lifting it above the usual period fare and making it accessible to all.
Tom Hulce as Mozart is brilliantly eccentric as he stumbles around the palaces of the musical city with a giddy, lunatic giggle and immodest strut of a man endowed with talent that seems to infuriate only his rival Salieri. It’s a performance that in any other film would seem completely out of place. And even so, for all his wit, there’s a vulnerably naive side to the character also, truly believing up to the very end that Salieri is his only friend among his composer colleagues. But it’s F. Murray Abraham’s embittered Salieri who steals the show in the film’s much darker parts. He is a man working for god, offering to him his chastity in thankfulness for his great talents, only to see himself diminished in the face of “That giggling dirty-minded creature I had just seen, crawling on the floor!” He questions why god would use a man such as this as his instrument on earth, making a mediocrity of Salieri. Should not he, the man devoted to god’s work be rewarded justly? Thus, consumed by hate he plot’s to destroy this “creature.” Abraham quite rightly won an Oscar for his performance, it’s a role he will always be remembered for and it’s surprising that he was not able to turn this into a major career in Hollywood.
The film also features some excellent turns by supporting characters, notably Jeffrey Jones as the “musical” Kaiser Josef II, an enthusiastic but tone-deaf music lover with fabulous “Hm-hm” quirks. His associates Count Orsini-Rosenberg (Charles Kay) and Kappelmeister Bonno (Patrick Hines in his last role) are excellent also as are the Mozarts, Constanze and Leopold (Elizabeth Berridge and Roy Dotrice). Simon Callow who played Mozart in the original stage-play returns here as Schikaneder who commissions Mozart’s last opera “The Magic Flute.” Put together, this forms an awesome screen presence and every second of film is overflowing with excellence. Forman has put together a Director’s Cut which is available on DVD and adds almost 30 more minutes to already long running time but it’s worth it. Included here are scenes where Salieri bows to lust, sexually molesting Constanze but can find no fulfilment in doing so, as well as several extended scenes.
The music. Well, what can I say, it’s Mozart? The task of choosing from over 600 works fell to Sir Neville Mariner and his “Academy of St. Martin in the Fields” who insisted that no note of the composer’s be altered. Undoubtedly this has led Forman to cut some of his scenes to the music such as the opening, set to the first movement of Symphony No 25 or the Requiem scoring session between Mozart and Salieri is magnificently realised. It is also worth noting that all the actors who are seen to play the piano, learned it for real. No fancy special effects here! There have been many versions of the soundtrack released over time but the most definitive of these is possibly a double disc offering from Fantasy Records that was released to coincide with the Director’s Cut. For real Mozart lovers these will probably be little more than “best-of” compilations and may not add anything to your collection. Still, as far as music goes this is as good as you’re going to get.
“Amadeus” remains as one of the few good things that ever came out of the 80s and has value both for music and film lovers. Not for it’s historical accuracy but for its ways of giving that period dust a good wash with great comedy and serious contemplative material to chew on. For that alone you should see it. “Well, there it is!”
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