Amadeus (1984, Milos Forman)
Yes, it’s overblown like most of Milos Forman’s films. And yes, you can carp with it, particularly its historical accuracy — which is nonexistent; Mozart’s annoying skin-crawly laugh is rather dubious, and that’s just the beginning. But this giddy little monstrosity is sneaky and subversive by the standards of the curiously American conceit of the prestige picture — it’s not just one of the weirdest films to cart off an armload of Oscars, it’s one of the liveliest. God bless it for being so much more (or less?) than a traditional biopic. Hell, even as nontraditional biopics go, I’ll still take it over Lincoln; cinema needn’t always aspire to even the illusion of documentary detail, which this impressionistic, pop-dumb story never does.
The wide-eyed oddness of the enterprise starts with its central idea: Mozart’s life as seen through the narrowed, disapproving eyes of secret admirer, fellow composer, would-be BFF, and secret sort-of-murderer Antonio Salieri (a well-made up, perpetually pissy F. Murray Abraham), who in actual fact was only roughly half of those things, but so what. A suicidal, reflective Salieri symphonically masturbates and narrates (to a priest, inevitably) his life story, of unending mediocrity in the shadow of a genius. It’d be one thing for the film to posit something like acceptance of this, but Salieri goes apeshit and vengeful, burning crosses, plotting his unwitting rival’s demise, and announcing the world that he speaks for the ordinary, the stymied, the non-great men; God laughs at them all, it’s suggested, and the laughter of oppressed creativity echoes hollow into the night.
Like much of the film, Salieri’s sputtering self-regard is vaguely disturbing and full of a stern but enigmatic menace. His out-of-nowhere maliciousness (even amidst all the occasions in which Mozart obliviously or blatantly snubs him in various ways) is a strange angle from which to approach the story, until you consider that the overwhelming majority of us are and have always been in his position, of observing greatness (where available) from afar. There may be something to his articulation of the distant struggle with creativity, but there’s also something to the way Forman uses it to forge identification with the real hero of the picture — Mozart himself, of course, whose growing obsessions and financial troubles become the actual point of tension and conflict. We mostly discover all of this secondhand; he is never any less of a stranger to us than to Salieri — which is actually a smart strategy on Forman’s part, since it accepts the unknowability of a majority of great artists and historical figures. We do come to know the haphazard fact of Mozart’s home life with his wife Constanze (an agreeably ambiguous Elizabeth Berridge) and his eternally disapproving father Leopold (caped, often masked Roy Dotrice), under whose eyes Mozart is most vulnerable — the very weakness Salieri harnesses to cast his last attempt at glory, the one which exhausts his enemy to the grave.
Forman’s visual flourishes have considerably more panache here than in the closeup-filled claustrophobia of his biggest prior success, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; shot gorgeously by Forman’s favored collaborator Miroslav Ondrícek, its depth and full-colored fury emphasize the tension at the core of its storytelling, a deliberate contrast to costume-drama convention. Amadeus may be a lengthy film, but it seldom slows down, and although it’s filled with music and voiceover, its most intriguing, tormenting story thread — of Mozart’s deep-seated father issues — is told entirely with visuals, with sweep and fear and the hint of constant unblinking surveillance. Salieri, for his part, takes note of all this but fails to sense its essence: that the genius suffers perhaps most of all.
In Forman’s funhouse history class, Mozart himself is a curiously wily and snotty creation embodied by the featherweight Tom Hulce, the perfect illustration of the vulgar eternal child imagined by playwright Alexander Pushkin. The nails-on-chalkboard laugh suggests a Seth MacFarlane diversion before any kind of capitalized Great Man, but where Hulce excels most of all is his exploration of the character’s weaknesses. Under the watchful glares of his father, his wife, and eventually almost everyone, he is cognizant to his own failings and challenged, eternally maddened by them; for Salieri to provide a ghost of his father to appear on his doorstep is the cruelest but most appropriately nightmarish climax to this particular Mozart’s anxieties. In this manner, the performances and director alike render something altogether fantastic somehow believable, even trustworthy.
What’s interesting is that although Salieri narrates our story, the world being visualized seems subjectively skewed by Mozart’s perception of what’s around him. The massive frame embodying his full-on, waifish presence in the orchestral pit as he conducts is illustrative of a man physically small (a contrast to the reality) and massive to us. The setpieces are dazzling — a series of costume balls and parties of involving presence and occasionally harrowing ominousness to match the balletic physicality of the performances, Hulce’s in particular. And at the film’s climactic peak, the composition of the Requiem — dictated from a sickbed by Mozart with Salieri standing by clutching onto pen and paper trying desperately to match his unlikely (and hours from death) partner’s quick mind — we’re given access to something so seemingly small as a man calling things out as another writes them down, but with all the grip and fiery tension of a great thriller.
That’s not the first time Amadeus brushes up against such disparate stylistics, casting it far away from the traditionalist conceits that may be expected of this genre and even director. It’s that rare sense in which you can detect an actual improvement upon classicist Hollywood methodology; how would this film have looked in the ’30s as directed by William Dieterle, for instance? Instead, we have the monumentally fucked up vision of an impassioned and impulsive man, best exemplified by the gloriously edited and performed Don Giovanni sequence, a raising of the father from the grave and a performance that leaves the composer breathless — and his audience crushingly indifferent. It’s here that everything about the overgrown child and the genius is stripped away and we’re left with a man, a man with flaws and fears — a source for our most complex admirations and sympathies, but also a source of exploitation.
The music, needless to say, is brilliant — the best film score one can possibly imagine, with liberal extractions gathered from throughout Mozart’s career, from early symphonies to the Marriage of Figaro to the extensive and furious Requiem. I remember this music vividly from my childhood; this film was a fixture of my household then, a favorite of one of my parents. And although it had been at least fifteen years since I’d seen it when I screened it for the Best Picture project, my affection for it remains strong. But I must confess that my reaction was not what I expected — of responding anew to the fear and the dread and the sinister in this often lonely and consistently angry valentine to the perpetual underdog, to the central unfairness of creative genius. The movie might be shallow, but it certainly is convicted enough about it to be scary.
[Note: The above review, slightly altered in 2015, refers to the original theatrical version of the film. The director’s cut, which I saw two years after this post, adds twenty minutes and enhances one’s immersion in the narrative. It is equally strongly recommended. I wrote about it in a bit more detail at Letterboxd.]