Sunday, July 17, 2011

Another New Review of an Old Movie

Tonight's fare: Milos Forman's 1984 film Amadeus.

Based on Peter Shaffer's 1979 stage play of the same name, Amadeus won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1984, plus a Best Actor Oscar for F. Murray Abraham as well as Best Director for Milos Forman and Best Adapted Screenplay for Shaffer (plus four other Oscars).

The story tells a mostly-fictionalized tale of rivalry between the preternaturally-gifted composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the man who might otherwise have been in the spotlight, the Italian composer Antonio Salieri. The story takes the form of a series of extended flashbacks, in the form of scenes narrated to a priest from a mental hospital where Salieri has come after a suicide attempt. He believes himself to have been responsible for Mozart's premature death (at age 35) after having spent the latter half of his life conspiring against the oblivious genius who blithely crushed Salieri into obscurity and humiliation at every turn. He is now wracked with guilt mingled with a continuing awe and envy of Mozart and a loathing of the god he feels betrayed him.

While the historical record bears little evidence of the key plot points in this drama, the story is so delicious and compelling for a couple key reasons: First, F. Murray Abraham's performance is simply miraculous. To a person who loves music, it's obvious that Abraham gets his subject matter. His Salieri is a tortured man who has dedicated his life to glorifying his god by way of his divine gift (as he sees it) of musical talent. But in Mozart's presence, Salieri's "divine gift" is made mock of; he is overshadowed again and again, even humiliated by the younger man's sheer, white-hot genius. Second, the use of music--and the music itself--is sublime. The gallant style which Mozart brought to such perfection is perfectly matched here to its time and place, and Salieri gives a brilliant play-by-play of several pieces as they play in background. As an accomplished composer himself, he is perfectly qualified to show us what is so extraordinary about Mozart's accomplishments. The score was supervised and conducted by Neville Marriner, and it is lush and really beautifully played. And lastly, it's a period costume drama, and Forman has brought the Vienna of the middle 1700s wonderfully to life. The American accents mixed in with the more urbane-sounding Brits is a bit jarring at first (like Tom Cruise's Col. Stauffenberg in Valkyrie) but one settles in.

The character of Mozart is played by Tom Hulce. His Mozart is a petulant, arrogant, frivolous and vulgar young man who is nonetheless possessed of a talent the world had scarcely before seen (and he knows it). Hulce was also nominated for several awards for this role (but not winning, I believe), but ironically it's not really Mozart's story. Hulce is almost a place-marker here, a stand-in for the genius against whom (and off of whom) the real story takes place; it's Salieri's story. The light emanates from Mozart, but it's the reflection of that light off of Salieri's face that fills the screen here.

But the rivalry, and Salieri's agony at his humiliation, is palpable. With such a beautiful setting to watch and brilliant music for your ears, the film is a Grand Slam. Ironically, Mozart for me has never been on my list of favorites. I cannot but acknowledge his freak-of-nature genius, and his heavier works like the Requiem are sublime. But I'm not primarily an opera person, and I gravitate toward heavy and dense over light and airy (even if that lightness is deceptive). But this is a film which so wonderfully makes its own case that one needn't bring any prior baggage to the show. What a fabulous way to spend a couple hours.

Grade: A


dbackdad said...

You know, I may be one of the few people that has never seen Amadeus. It's on Netflix Instant, so I'll watch it this week.

wunelle said...

Give me your two cents' when you do!

My wife, the theatre person, reminds me that those brilliant lines which F. Murray Abraham is given to say come from the pen of Peter Shaffer. The awareness of Mozart's genius and the explanations of it from Salieri are Shaffer's work. (And he's got an Oscar to prove it!)

Paul said...

Mozart is the composer that comes closest to doing it all: he could write great symphonies, concertos, sacred works, opera (comic and serious), etc. And it all seems so effortless. Invariably this comes up on the anniversary of his birthday.

In contrast Beethoven could write a powerhouse symphony, but struggled with opera. Similarly, Schubert wrote great art song but bad opera.

In the end it's Mozart's effortlessness that gets me. I like to hear my composer struggle a bit. That's what generates catharsis. Beethoven symphonies have more tension and therefore more release.

Just the long way of saying Mozart isn't my favorite.

Great movie, though. I saw it again a year or two ago, and it's aged well.

wunelle said...

I think that's exactly right: he was so talented that he could do anything seemingly without difficulty or struggle. With Bach, say, even the sweetest things have an intellectual fabric, and that makes for me the listener something to revisit again and again and see what I can catch. I guess I like that effort more than the pure release of perfect light and air.

A similar expose of Bach would be fun, except that his life was much less interesting than his work.