This is a film that appears on a lot of top 10 lists, including my mum’s actually. I’ve been intrigued to see it for a long time and having finally got around to it, am pleased to report this is one of those rare and lovely times my expectations for a film have been exceeded. It, quite fittingly, has all the complexity, beauty and intensity of the compositions of the man whose story is being told.
Saying that, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is not the main character, in spite of what the film’s title would have you think. The film begins with two servants pleading to be let in their master’s room, as he has locked himself away. They burst in, and to the audience’s surprise, the man they find sitting in a pool of blood is not Mozart. Oh, okay then. We then cut to an insane asylum, where a priest has come to visit a certain patient – ah, this must be Mozart, it’s well known throughout his life the stress of genius took a toll on his mind. Wrong again. It’s the same elderly man we just saw. This mysterious figure is Antonio Salieri, the narrator and main focus of our story. Mozart was his contemporary and rival, and he claims to be responsible for his death. The film is his confession, his story, his turn to be in the spotlight.
Or is it? Mozart is such an immense presence in the film due to Salieri’s obsession that he ends up overshadowing the narrative, one of the many touches of genius from director Milos Forman (who also directed the phenomenal ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’). The build-up to actually seeing Mozart results in a truly unbelievable unveiling. Unbelievable in the sense that this was really not what you expected. You can feel Salieri’s anticipation and nerves as he scans the room pondering whether such talent could be written on a persons face, can genius make a person instantly recognisable? Naturally the viewer can’t help but imagine what he/she will find. Now I speak only for myself, but what I pictured Mozart would be was a man of quiet brilliance, subtly eccentric and a little tortured. A reasonable idea but quite horribly mislead…
You know how in every high school class there’s a small, greasy kid that’s been effectively short-changed on puberty, and to compensate is constantly making really crude, infantile jokes and is tolerated by everyone as just “that immature asshole”…well that pretty much sums up Mozart in this film. Kudos to Tom Hulce (who you’ll recognise as the voice of Quasimodo in Disney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ ) as his portrayal makes it perfectly understandable to the viewer why Salieri finds him so deplorable.
Perhaps “deplorable” is a little too strong a word but the shock of what Mozart – or “the creature” as Salieri calls him – turns out to be takes a while to adjust to. Salieri’s agony stems from the injustice he feels God has caused. He, a dedicated, passionate, virtuous man who swore celibacy to ensure nothing distracted his musical aspirations, can only achieve mediocrity. Whereas Mozart, a conceited, frivolous, boorish man-child, can knock out a spectacular composition with minimal effort. Salieri is a devout man of God, praying constantly not for guidance but for help in his musical ambition, and it first it seems as though the Lord is obliging. But as Mozart continues to excel, and Salieri suffers more and more humiliations, he turns against God, believing him sadistically laughing at him through Mozart. It is this that drives him to his elaborate plan to destroy Mozart.
The revenge plot would seem the highlight of the film, but what really makes this film special is just the ongoing character arcs of the two main protagonists/antagonists. What is particularly marvelous is how this film divides its audience between the two rivals. I think depending on who you side with will tell you a lot about the kind of person you are. If you’re serious, determined, and perhaps have been a little screwed over by life, you’ll sympathise with Salieri’s plight. If you’re more the carefree, laid-back type, who perhaps has had it a little easier in life you’ll view Salieri as a jaded psycho who needs to get over himself. Which one are you? I know which side I’m on…
Incidentally, the title of the film is cleverer than you realise. The word Amadeus translates as ‘love of God’. It is this of course this that fuels and torments Salieri, so really the film’s title does refer to both of them. It reflects the film perfectly. Salieri is the substance, Mozart is the front.
Concentrating for minute on the look of the film, it is quite stunning. The art direction has a delicately modern touch that really illuminates the melodrama and extravagance without going into Baz Luhrmann territory (not that I don’t love Baz). I’d expect nothing less from Milos Forman and may even, dare I say, prefer this film to ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’.
This film rightfully won a boatload of awards when it came out but it also generated a fair bit of controversy over an issue that’s cropped up several times on times blog: historical inaccuracy. Yes, the film is very likely skewing the truth but in honesty I can’t say I care – no disrespect meant if you do – it’s just for me, the film-making is too fine to criticise sources (or lack thereof). And to repeat what I said in my ‘Argo’ review: it’s Hollywood. What do you expect?
‘Amadeus’ is a rare treat for the eyes, the ears and the mind. You’ll never be able to listen to Mozart quite the same way again.
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