Amadeus (1984) dir. Milos Forman
Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Jeffrey Jones, Elizabeth Berridge
“Amadeus” avoids the traps of the biopic genre by telling the productive career of Mozart through the eyes of his jealous rival Antonio Salieri. Forman makes what could have been an intellectually-alienating costume drama into an accessible and wholly engrossing masterpiece.
The film is based on Peter Schaffer’s stage play, which he also adapts. Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), in his old age, tells the story from his days as the court composer during the reign of Emperor Joseph II of Austria (Jeffrey Jones). Before Salieri even met him Mozart’s talent was legendary having composed his first opera at age 12. But Mozart is not the man Salieri expected – he’s portrayed as a skirt-chasing self-effacing jokester. Mozart makes light of his own talent which indirectly mocks Salieri’s insecurities as a ‘mediocre’ composer. Salieri, who, as a child prayed to God to give him the talent to become a star, is incensed that God has given the world greatest music talent to an affable boob. Salieri’s insecurities fuel his hatred as he proceeds to slowly crush Mozart’s soul and drive him to madness.
F. Murray Abraham gives a great understated nuanced performance. Abraham’s face reads unspoken emotions of jealousy, guilt, hatred as well as his genuine love for music. Salieri both loathes and idolizes Mozart and Abraham wonderfully expresses this contradiction at all times. Perhaps his best scene is Mozart’s first appearance for the Emperor. Salieri has composed a simple march on the piano for his entrance. The Emperor, who has no ear for music, plays the tune. The measured look of frustration on Abraham’s face is cringe-worthy.
Forman accomplishes a feat of casting I’ve rarely see – casting American actors with their own accents in the lead roles. Tom Hulce plays Mozart with a dignified American accent but with a hint of his Detroit twang. F. Murray Abraham whom we then knew most recently as Omar Suarez in “Scarface” is also dignified-American, but it’s refreshing to not have them resort to a generic British accent. Jeffrey Jones would never be cast today as the affable Emperor, but his quirky humour serves the role well. When we first hear Elizabeth Berridge’s coarse accent on screen we are taken aback but as she develops the character her accent naturally fits in.
Mozart’s music is used throughout the film, in the many staged set pieces and also as the score. The music fits in naturally with the narrative and it never seems like a greatest hits compilation. Though I can’t read a lick of music watching Salieri and Mozart discuss music is a thrill. The finale which has Mozart at his sickly bedside dictating the composition and notes of “Requiem” to Salieri is wonderful and energetic.
Cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek provides the delicate texture of a renaissance painting. He compliments the lush costumes and production design with soft anamorphic lenses and ultra-low-key lighting. As a result the depth of focus is very shallow – throwing virtually everything out of focus. The best of Ondricek’s frames are in the theatres where Mozart conducts his orchestra (see image above). As Mozart sways his hands in time with the music, only he is in focus. But with the audience and amount activity in the background of the widescreen frame Mozart is isolated and magnified. They are marvelous scenes.
Amadeus won the Best Picture Oscar, among many others, in 1984. The film is still enthralling and deserving of its awards. It’s one of the best films of the 80’s and one of greatest films about music. Enjoy.