Take a Drink: for every Mozart piece you recognize
Take a Drink: whenever Salieri invokes the name of God
Take a Drink: whenever Mozart does something debauched or childish
Take a Drink: for that laugh…
Take a Drink: for every new scheme of Salieri’s
Take a Drink: for painfully high notes
Do a Shot: for creation
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
Here we are continuing my theme of the last few weeks of watching classics inspired by my recent trip through central Europe, several of which I’ve surprisingly not yet seen up til now.
No great loss in some cases.
Travelling through Austria felt a bit like following the Mozart trail, as we followed his journey from his hometown of Salzburg to the great court city of Vienna (with a doctor to debut Don Giovanni in Prague), so Amadeus was a logical watch upon returning, especially since I’ve never seen it in full before. The film tells the story of Mozart (Tom Hulce) as he strikes out on his own after years as a father-managed prodigy, told through the warped reminiscences of his unknown arch-nemesis Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), a respected composer who is stunned and angered at the prodigious talent God gave this profane manchild, talent he could never equal.
Where to start? At every level, Amadeus is an eye and ear-catching, sumptuously designed production, with its blend of ace production design (hehe) and costuming and authentic Vienna and Prague-set eye-candy locations, well-tailored cinematography, and, of course, great, great music, provided by composer Neville Mariner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Orchestra.
Screenwriter Peter Shaffer, adapting his own play, and director Milos Forman deliver more than surface pleasures, though. Organizing the film around Salieri’s perspective is a stroke of genius, as it provides a portrait of a fascinating character in his own right, and a perspective more akin to the audience’s. We all know how it feels to be mesmerized by a one of a kind, almost unearthly talent, and, if we’re honest with ourselves, to be jealous of it.
Damn you, sir. Damn you for making me feel again!
Hidden in that relationship is a bit of a sly, talent vs. critic/creator vs. studio parable, with characters from Salieri on down to King Joseph II and his entourage embodying all the archetypes of that age-old struggle. The mediocre, the untalented, the self-styled expert all collaborate, wittingly or no, to undermine and smother the efforts of the inspired, but in the end, true art finds a path. Jeffrey Jones in particular as Joseph II does an excellent job playing a man who’s expected, or at least expects himself, to be a cultural leader, but who actually has a tin ear and a philistine’s soul, regardless of what his flunkies tell him.
F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri is a different sort of animal, a man not without talent, but not blessed with truly divine ability. He’s gotten himself where he is through hard work and good politics, but when confronted with Mozart’s gift, he realizes his own mediocrity. Instead of accepting the will of God, who he claims to serve through is music, his hubris and jealousy instead drive him to declare a war on Him, and the artist who He’s given so much. Even at his most hateful, though, he can’t help but admire and be drawn to Mozart’s work. It’s a titanic performance, and deserving of every accolade it received.
Ironically, Tom Hulce’s Mozart is somewhat overshadowed by Abraham’s incredible performance, but he is just as good, a perverse, seemingly vapid Peter Pan with the mind of a genius. Even more than Abraham’s droll cynicism, his manic performance provides the comedy that elevate this film into the Grand Farce it aspires to be, but when tragedy strikes, he proves just as adept at heart-breaking drama, none more so than in the final sequence, in which he produces his own transcendent Requiem Mass, an epic and fitting crescendo to close an excellent film.
At three hours, the director’s cut of the film is perhaps a little indulgent for a not terribly complicated plot. Also, while I understand what tone the film’s going for, too many people take Amadeus as historical gospel, which it categorically isn’t. Both Mozart and Salieri were more complex figures underserved by the farcical elements of the film, Salieri in particular. He was actually a respected, if comparatively forgotten composer, better known as a tutor of some people you’ve heard of, like Liszt, Schubert, or…
… whoever this guy is.
Amadeus is a gorgeously produced and directed, beautifully acted, and entirely entertaining historical fiction with some sneaky commentary on art itself.