One of the greatest composers of all time, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was the subject of the ambitious and epic film, Milos Forman’s AMADEUS (1984). The biopic tale of arguably the most brilliant musical talent from the 18th century classic era follows his true life story with some modifications and a few assumptive leaps based on Peter Shaffer’s screenplay and original stage play.
This film is told through the perspective of the twisted mind of the mad-with-envy Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), a fellow composer who is deeply frustrated by his own mediocre talent in contrast to that of the musical genius Mozart. It begins with Salieri as an old man at the insane asylum, where we find him after he has attempted suicide. He is visited by a priest who has heard that Salieri admitted to killing a man and he arrives to offer his religious duties of contrition.
Salieri tells his story by playing a few chords from a couple of tunes, explaining that they were enormously popular at the time and shocked his visitor was completely unaware of these songs and that he was its composer. He then plays another tune which the young priest immediately recognizes and hums along. He smiles and compliments the old man of this charming tune, yet Salieri concedes that well-known song was not his own but rather Wolfgang Mozart’s.
Now we begin at the origin of Salieri’s journey with Mozart. Salieri explains he spent a somewhat typical childhood as an Italian boy with an ambitious desire to compose music. He felt his family and humble surroundings held him back from his full potential of greatness. He prays to God that he will devote his sacrifices of hard work and loyalty in exchange for opportunity and fulfillment of superior music, befitting of God’s glory. Then his father dies and he claims his father’s death was a gift that changed his course of history to later propel his career as the court composer in coveted Vienna.
In parallel, we see the child prodigy, young Wolfgang grow up quite differently. Wolgang Amadeus Mozart was playing multiple instruments by three, wrote his first symphony by the age of eight and his first opera by twelve. Young Mozart’s father Leopold relentlously drives his son and parades him around to royalty across Europe to perform like a circus act. (This is very similar to Mozart’s real upbringing with his father.)
Salieri’s first encounter with Mozart (Tom Hulce) reveals their striking differences and highlights Salieri’s grave disappointment in the young man he’s admired from afar since his youth. Salieri is looking for Mozart at the royal palace of his anticipated performance, studying each face in the room to see if he can recognize such genius by a glance. As he slips into a side room that is stacked with culinary delectables to sneak a nibble, he hides from the young couple frolicking under the table in young love’s playful chase. Salieri finds their behavior unbecoming, brazen and vulgar. Just then, coming from the main room, the music starts in the absence of their star conductor. The young man with an uniquely distinctive laugh stops his bold pursuit, abruptly stands up and dashes off, announcing his discovery they’ve begun his music without him. Salieri is beside himself in dismay.
Mozart is not interested in playing politics to appease royalty whom controls any chances to garner opportunities for his music career. His cavalier and immature attitude offends his home court so he’s kicked out of Salzberg and off to Vienna, where Salieri is the court composer. In an awkward first introduction, Mozart blithely insults Salieri’s skills in front of the Emperor and ruffles several feathers of the court by showing off his superior talents. Mozart expresses enough boyish enthusiasm to convince the Emporer to allow him to write an opera- not in the traditional Italian, but in German.
The production is received well but the Emporer and his court reveal Mozart’s genuis is well beyond their comprehension when they respond that it was a fine effort but “possessed too many notes.” Mozart is bewildered. This is further complicated when Mozart’s unsophisticated fiancee Constanze and future mother-in-law force their introductions which reveals that Mozart has evidently been having an affair with the lead soprano. Salieri is in love (or “in lust” as he admits) with the lead soprano, his pupil. This is merely the beginning of the end for Mozart and Salieri.
The rest of the story travels throughout the unraveling of Salieri, followed by both Salieri and Amadeus falling deeper into madness. From the start, they both show hints of instability- in different ways. For Salieri, his obsession with Mozart is pushed over into quiet rage when he continues to observe Mozart’s flaws in all his vulgar, impractical ways as his continuing growth of talent shows unlimited trajectory. His pact with God has turned into an insane pact with the devil, hellbent on destroying Mozart due to his unhealthy envy of his musical genuis.
For Amadeus Mozart, part of his undoing he brings upon himself; so it’s almost an easy path for Salieri to destroy him. Salieri is acutely aware of his flawed idol’s weaknesses- his lack of social skills, his open-book naivte, his creative drive at all costs, his insatiable need to please his unforgiving father- all these play a part in Mozart’s deeper trip into madness and fatal destiny.
If you’ve never seen this film or if it’s been a very long time, this is a MUST SEE. It’s beautiful, it’s charming, it’s moving, it’s incredibly sad. When a well-known, historically signific biopic comes around, sometimes we’re prone to avoid it when we assume it won’t be entertaining simply because we already have a general idea of what happens and how it ends. Don’t make that mistake here.
The costumes are divine, the setting is atmospheric, frequently moody. The performances are exquisite. F. Murray Abraham as Salieri certainly deserved the Oscar he earned. As a matter of fact, this film earned a well-deserved total of eight Oscars. And that music. There’s a reason why Mozart’s music has lived on since the eighteenth century. The music is not background here, it’s showcased as a main character. There is a scene early on when, despite Salieri’s unwavering pursuit to end Amadeus, as he reads his icon’s pages of notes, he is visibly brought to tears. You don’t have to be a musician but perhaps only a music fan to react that deeply to this music. La Requim in particular. The first time I saw this film in the theater I was moved to tears at the death mass and it’s always been an emotionally stirring piece for me.
What is truly sad and compelling is that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s real life cause of sudden death at the age of 35 is still a mystery. Times were different back then in terms of evaluating and recording causes of death so it’s tough to claim with any certainty. Some said poisoning and others have more recently claimed a liklihood to strep infection. But all of these theories are to this day conjectures so this premise of such a secretly antagonistic plot by Salieri is not proven to have any merit, but not completely impossible either. Peter Shaffer’s ability to fill in these blank’s of this moving story with his stage production screenplay then this adapted screenplay for the big screen is impressive.
This review is my contribution to the STAGE TO SCREEN BLOGATHON hosted by The Rosebud Cinema and Rachel’s Theatre Reviews. Please take the time to read all the participating bloggers’ entries!
8 thoughts on “AMADEUS (1984), the Director’s Cut”
Excellent review. I will have to watch the film in the near future.
Lovely review. I agree that his film, besides being compelling and entertaining, is simply beautiful to behold. And, no matter what part he is playing, F. Murray Abraham will always be Salieri to me and I never, ever trust hum!
I liked this film so much more than I thought I would. Everything about it is wonderful – from the costume to the production and (obviously!) the music. Both Abraham and Hulce are perfectly cast. But I must admit, I didn’t know it was based on a stage show!
I’m afraid I’ve never been a fan of this movie (or the play, which I’ve read but never seen), because it seems like the message is if you’re talented, that automatically makes you a bastard. I know that’s Salieri’s point of view, but I find Mozart such a one-note caricature that it comes out as the message of the story as well, not just as seen through the eyes of the one telling us the story. I do agree Abraham is very good, and, of course, Mozart’s music is wonderful, but the movie just doesn’t do it for me. I do think you wrote very well about it, though.
Its central premise–that genius doesn’t always come to those who work hardest–is nothing short of brilliant. F. Murray Abraham deserved his Oscar for his fine performance, but Hulce is also quite good. It’s a shame that both actors often took roles beneath their talents. Guess everyone needs to make a living…
Sean is a nice Irish name and the respondent in the above comment may be a wonderful person, but the message of Amadeus is not genius = bastard, it is that jealousy breeds disaster and redemption is within your grasp if you can see past your own pettiness. Mozart was childish, prideful, foolish, pig headed and blind. Ultimately he knows his own faults. Salieri has the same characteristics but communicates them in different ways. It is not until he is past redemption that he sees the truth of his plotting. I said it on my own post about this movie last month, this was the best film of the 80s.