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Film Review: Amadeus

Amadeus (1984; Directed by Milos Forman)

Milos Forman’s Oscar-sweeping imagining of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s life, music, and death is a lush, energetic, witty, and historically dishonest movie. Based on a play by Peter Shaffer, the film has plenty to say about art, love, faith, and human nature, and says it flamboyantly, even if it couches those observations in a fundamental lie.

The fictionalized account of Mozart (played by an unforgettably joyous Tom Hulce) is framed through the hammy madhouse confession of his bitter, forgotten, and guilt-ridden putative rival in Vienna, the royal court composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, who won an Oscar for competently playing a role that is marvelously written). Recognizing and envying the implacable genius of Mozart’s work but abhorring his proto-bohemian joie de vivre and blithe disregard for the protocol of proper Austrian society, Salieri hatches a hazy, quasi-metaphorical plot to bring about Mozart’s untimely end through composition.

In Amadeus, art, which in Salieri’s belief system flows from the divine through human vessels like the frivolous yet gifted Mozart but never through himself, not only imitates but overtakes and consumes life. Life is art and art is life, both inseparable in their very being. The free-spirited Mozart can summon art at will as an extension of his liberated worldview, but the prim, devout Salieri, with his black garb and his abstentions from vices and desires, has no access to it. This dichotomy extends beyond actions and attire (Mozart’s ostentatious wigs and foppish clothing make him look like a glam rock star), but even regional accents: Abraham discourses in precise British English tones, where Hulce is pure American casual.

Applying the universal cultural assumption that true art belongs to the rebellious avant-garde and not to the well-heeled gatekeepers of bourgeois conventionality to the high-culture sphere of classical music is the masterstroke of Amadeus, even if it is a piece of unconsidered counter-cultural inherited wisdom. That this stroke is based on a distortion of Antonio Salieri’s life, music, influence, and relationship to Mozart is perhaps not to the film’s credit, mind you.

Although Mozart did resent the Italian domination of the Viennese musical environs (a presence which Salieri embodied) and the two men were rivals, they were friendly ones and mutual admirers. Additionally, far from being the “patron saint of mediocrity” (as the fictional Salieri dubs himself near the film’s end), the composer vilified by Shaffer’s adaptations was very prominent and influential in his own time, setting down many accepted standards of operatic composition in particular that subsequent (and more celebrated) composers followed and expanded upon and even teaching many of these future masters himself (including Schubert, Beethoven and Liszt). If his work is not as fondly-remembered as Mozart, well, whose is? Next to a Mozart, even accomplished composers seem like the measly incompetents.

As cinematically vibrant and thematically lucid (as well as just purely enjoyable) as Amadeus is, therefore, it is diminished, if only slightly, by this central figurative structuring around a historical mistruth. Its richness is diluted, its colours washed out. We can still be absorbed, but only if our disbelief is wholly suspended. A minor amount of extraneous research can threaten the entire conceit upon which the film is built, and that is a fragile frame indeed.

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Categories: Film, Music, Reviews
  1. KIM KYUNG MIN
    December 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    God is like a glass to Salieri. I would like to compare ‘pray for god and do his best for dream’ to ‘wipe the glass’. When he first met the glass(God) in his childhood, It was so thick and was not clean so he did not look himself through the glass. And he also did not recognize someone existed outside out of the glass at that time. But he prayed for his dream to the glass. After his father’s death, he could go further step to his dream. He thought God helped his dream will be able to come true by god’s love. So he wiped the glass sincerely to meet god and himself god made in the future. So he thought he devoted his all to glass in his life. While he wiped the glass sincerely, he could look someone and himself through the glass. This was Mozart and himself (reflection of the glass). At first, he was very happy and moved because he thought he found god’s another incarnation. But Mozart’s personality and talents are not harmonized. He really felt sense of loss for devoting his all and jealousy in comparison of Mozart’s talent. So he decided to break off the glass to show god his jealousy and sense of loss and kill Mozart who was showed to have more than god’s love effortless by him. By doing so, he at first felt a sense of achievement but later he was depressed. Because he could not look himself(had a mind to do his best for his dream) and Mozart(his idol) anymore by breaking off the glass. Therefore he only paid attention Mozart’s talents but he did not look himself though the glass. Meanwhile he does not recognize that maybe someone will be envy and memorize him at opposite side of glass. lf he wipe the glass more and more, he will be able to see himself precisely and Mozart’s life which was a little unhappy and unwealthy. Finally he rationalizes himself by saying that I am a champion. But I think he is silly and a coward because he did not look himself(reflection) sincerely. lf he could see himself and his life in comparison Mozart’s life, he will realize he had better personality, relationship, wealthy and good looking etc so he will be able to feel god’s fair love. Therefore god is like a glass because it can show the reflection of him and outside.

  1. September 20, 2014 at 5:35 pm

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