Amadeus September 2, 2019
F. Murray Abraham
2 Hrs., 41 Mins.
lmost nothing about Amadeus (1984) is true. While I’m not so quick to next throw in a clichéd line about how that doesn’t matter, because the film has some great drama in it, I’m still at least glad the man who wrote the play the feature is based on, 1979’s Amadeus, came out and clarified that pretty much everything we were seeing wasn’t to be trusted. Most artists who create content based on real life take liberties
with fact but aren’t transparent about it; as such, the legacies of people who might not have been well known to begin with get a bit transmuted. Audience members — including myself a lot of the time — aren’t willing to put in the research to find out which parts of the movie they’ve just taken in are for the most part recreations and which parts are emotionally manipulative contortions.
From the get-go, Amadeus is almost all contortion, so we can rest easy knowing that everyone is a plaything, not an accurate personification of a reality that once was. Like the boldest of revisionist historical dramas, from the decadent Marie Antoinette (2006) to the bawdy Inglourious Basterds (2009), Amadeus relishes in what-if scenarios and maximizes inferences for all they’re worth. In this film’s case, being altered are the lives and careers of composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. The film takes place from the time Mozart became the court composer for Emperor Joseph II, of Vienna, until his death at the age of 35. The basis for its drama is that Mozart and Salieri had a rivalry — more so brought out into the open by Salieri, who was older, Italian, and not a prodigy of his younger colleague’s caliber — that culminated in the latter allegedly poisoning Mozart in a desperate ploy to take credit for one of his final works.
Freedom from history is among the most appealing things about Amadeus. It’s rare that we get a period piece, let alone one starring to-this-day hyper-revered icons, so loose, almost freewheeling. Amadeus, though not quite a balls-out comedy, is definitely and often enjoyably rascally. Salieri’s eventual madness has a noisily wicked edge. Mozart is portrayed as a sort of clod with a pushily annoying laugh whose talent almost exacerbates what we don’t like about him. The film has a large appetite for big, messy wigs and overelaborate costumes. Sometimes it feels like an inversion of the lavish period piece. There’s a lot of jesting going on.
Amadeus does eventually get serious; it especially gives credence to a downward spiral felt by the film's Mozart when it becomes clear that his musical talent cannot rid him of his alcoholism, his workaholism, his father issues, or the dangers imposed by the prowling, dangerously envious Salieri. But the film is far better at scribbling red-pen marks over history than making a holistically riveting drama out of the rewrites. Conceptually the movie is immaculate, and juxtaposing the egos and talents of Mozart and Salieri is an undeniably shrewd way to make a compelling plot concerning the nuances that can sometimes make or break fame versus obscurity.
But we struggle to understand either character in toto. We get why Salieri might take desperate measures to exploit Mozart for his personal gain, but his bitterness is more “there” than tangible. And it’s hard to get ahold of Mozart. In some cases we’re meant to almost view him as a rather insufferable cartoon — a jokester who can’t totally fathom his musical capabilities just like everyone else. But in others we’re meant to sympathize, though moments conjured to bring that sympathy — usually involving Mozart, exhausted, in makeup that tells us that he’s physically, psychically, and emotionally dwindling — are written without much shading.
It could be argued that that’s the impression that was supposed to be made on us; that there should be a blurriness. The movie takes place, after all, in a flashback. The feature, as it begins, introduces the conceit that Salieri, elderly and loony, now resides in a mental asylum and is recounting his dalliance with Mozart to a priest after trying to end his life. Because the film takes place from the bitter Salieri’s perspective, of course the characters have the potential to be a little difficult to pinpoint. Salieri’s memory isn’t trustworthy, and recollections of himself even a few days ago are probably also steeped in misalignment. But Amadeus is almost a three-hour-long movie, and it more so often feels like we’re lurching toward a hopelessly inexorable finale once the last act comes around. There isn’t much of an emotional catharsis at the end of the movie, though I’ll admit the last shot of Salieri and the accompanying sounds are a stroke of dramaturgic mastery on Shaffer’s part.
I still enjoyed Amadeus. Its tinkering with history is more exciting than it isn’t, and the performances from F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce, who play Salieri and Mozart, respectively, have a magnetic conviction to them that cover up a lot of the screenplay’s shortcomings. The direction, from Miloš Forman, is commanding and confidently sensual; never do we feel like we’re watching anything other than a movie made by a filmmaker at the apex of his game. And it’s gratifying to watch these reimaginings of creative processes and resulting symphonies, operas, in a believable and manicured setting. But there’s an indistinctness to Amadeus that I can’t quite push aside. It’s an epic that makes all the right moves (which is impressive, considering its passionate audacity) but doesn’t always move us. B