Review Written by: Bill Slocum
What the MPAA Rating should be: PG (for brief language and sexual content)
Directed by: Milos Forman
Written by: Paul Shaffer
Based on the play by: Paul Shaffer
Produced by: Saul Zaentz
Starring: Tom Hulce, F. Murray Abraham, Elizabeth Berridge, Jeffrey Jones
Studio: Orion Pictures
cleaned up on Oscar Night 1985 and in its time was as much an event as a film. It even spawned a #1 worldwide hit, the silly but infectious "Rock Me Amadeus." Then the movie kind of disappeared. You didn't hear about it much when people discussed great cinema, even from the 1980s. The actors, all hailed when the film came out, seemed to slip back into relative obscurity, except for Cynthia Nixon, the future Sex And The City
girl unrecognizable here as an innocent housemaid. Maybe that's why director Milos Forman and the film's producers decided on releasing a special Director's Cut when it was time to make a DVD.
The result, as Salieri might have put it, is breathtaking. The film breathes with new life, shaking whatever period-film shackles held it back in 1984. We see Mozart struggling to make himself an instructor for rich, untalented girls; enjoy with the common people of Austria a rousing farce of "Don Giovanni;" and finally get a satisfying reason for one of the original film's few problems: Why Mozart's wife Constanze angrily sends Salieri away from her husband's deathbed. The end result: What was great before is perfection now.
Its brilliance is not in its costumes, its set design, its bravura performances or crafty plot. It's not even the music, though classical music snobs I encountered claimed that was the only thing in the movie worth noticing, though in its hacked-up state it was more "Hooked On Mozart" than anything truly edifying. No, what's great about Amadeus, what makes it rise to the utter top, is how all these brilliant elements are brought together in a way that carries the viewer with it from beginning to end. Even if you don't get it all the first time you see it, your appetite will be stoked enough for you to wish to see it again and that's where the film really makes its mark.
Like other landmark movies, Citizen Kane
, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
, and Jaws
hits you a different way each time you see it. It's gripping tragedy, a sad love story and in parts very funny, sometimes broadly so, like when the midget pantomimes Don Giovanni's entrance in the vaudeville show, or more subtly. Salieri is especially rich in this regard, the way F. Murray Abraham plays him. There's a great scene when he connives to sabotage a Mozart opera, only to have the Emperor arrive and undo his work in such a way to make Mozart think Salieri has in fact done him a great service. Mozart bows meaningfully in Salieri's direction and Abraham's pained courtliness in his response is a sturdy laugh every time I see it.
Abraham won an Oscar for his role and deserved it, but there's great acting all over the place. Tom Hulce makes Mozart a high-living fellow with a juvenile mind and a poor understanding for the lesser talents of other composers, yet at the same time he makes you care about his many trials. Elizabeth Berridge is believably coquettish and lower-class as Constanze and the Director's Cut really makes you better appreciate what a great actress she was and how unfair it was we never got to see her in another film this good. Jeffrey Jones provides much of the comedy as a Reaganesque Emperor Joseph, good-naturedly opaque and there's a wonderful bevy of stock characters lurking in the background who all get their turns in the sun, like in a Shakespeare play.
That's a good way to describe Amadeus
, as the kind of film Shakespeare might have made had he plied his trade a few centuries later. The central theme involves one of those classic problems of life, of how one copes with the gift of being able to discern another's greatness without being able to produce the same in return, but there's a wonderful metaphysical mystery underneath, too, the kind W.S. did so well.
Is this a film about the folly of seeing a religious design in the patterns of life, in thinking some divine being guides all and decides who is great and who is not? Some would say so. Others might incline to Salieri's own belief, that God is a being not of mercy but of caprice, striving to undo those who strive to be better than He intends. Finally, there is the idea, which I go with, that Salieri's great loss was not in being there when Mozart came to Vienna but to be so choked with jealousy as to not help him, despite the many opportunities to do so and to suffer the consequences of seeing Mozart's posthumous reputation rise to greater heights while his own music "grows fainter." The brilliance of that last scene, of Salieri helping Mozart write the Requiem, is realizing that with a different, more positive and truly pious outlook, Salieri could have been Mozart's champion and shared some of his boundless fame.
Of course, this is all fiction. Salieri didn't drive Mozart to his death. Ironically, he was more a devoted servant of greatness, as history records him being the chief teacher of the one composer whose reputation arguably eclipses even Mozart's, Ludwig van Beethoven. But screenwriter Peter Shaffer doesn't let this get in the way of a great story and so we have a great movie and Salieri, a measure of notoriety his own music never brought.
Mozart showing off his impressive musical skills in Amadeus.