Mozart created music imbued with humanity and glittering with sheer sensual beauty, instantly accessible and eternally fresh, profoundly satisfying both emotionally and intellectually. A prodigy who performed and composed for the courts of Europe from the age of six, his genius was of the caliber called "gifted," the term used when extraordinary talent cannot be explained by rationally understood causation.
It is that extraordinary quality that Peter Shaffer used as the fulcrum for both his play and his Academy Award winning screenplay which, while drawing on the life of Mozart, is not intended as a literal biography. Shaffer calls it "a fantasia on themes from Mozart’s life." Titled neither Wolfgang nor Mozart, but Amadeus, the composer’s middle name which means "beloved of God," Shaffer sets up a fictionalized dramatic conflict between an at once profane and blessed Mozart (Tom Hulce) and the imperial court composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), a musical mediocrity who aspired to fame and greatness, only to be shadowed during his lifetime and forever after by the greatness of his contemporary.
Told from Salieri’s point of view, the story follows the arrival of Mozart at the court of Vienna where Salieri, along with his fellow musical sycophants, curries favor with Emperor Joseph II. Mozart, portrayed as vulgar and with a high-pitched laugh, wins his way repeatedly by virtue of his captivating music, flaunting both social and musical convention.Salieri fumes and then plots, knowing in his heart the gulf between his own ordinary capabilities and the unending magic that flows from Mozart’s brilliance. The contrast between them is also a riff on the theme of mortality/immortality. Mozart dies young and is buried in a pauper’s grave, but lives on through his music; Salieri lives to an old age of bitterness as he observes his own musical oeuvre disappear from public interest.
The writing, the characterizations, and the physical production of Amadeus are conceived with a finely drawn degree of exaggeration, enough to satirize the pompousness of the court and the royal hangers-on, as well as to heighten the contrast between Mozart’s great art and his bumpkin-like behaviors. But both Shaffer and director Milos Forman (Man on the Moon, Ragtime) stop well short of broad comedy, maintaining a sufficient sense of reality to sustain the serious dramatic premise. The same exaggeration heightens nearly to melodrama Mozart’s relationship with his stern and humorless father.
The soundtrack, which has been remastered for the release of the director’s cut, integrates Mozart’s music into the context of the story. Excerpts from some of the operas, performed by leading operatic singers, were fully staged for the film in the restored 18th century Tyl Theater in Prague where Mozart himself conducted the premiere of Don Giovanni over two centuries ago. But The Magic Flute, which Mozart wrote for the people’s theater, was staged in a reconstructed version of that far less elegant space. (It’s icing on the cake to have a perfectly recorded performance of the young June Anderson as Queen of the Night.)
The music, of course, is on an equal footing with the drama, but is also crucial to its development. With each new composition, with each new musical triumph for Mozart, Salieri’s desperation grows, his prayers intensify, and his hubris swells. F. Murray Abraham (Finding Forester, The Name of the Rose) deservedly won the Academy Award for his performanceas Salieri, a performance that soars with literate intelligence and emotional intensity. (That Salieri, as a musician, could so fully appreciate and keenly articulate his rival’s accomplishments is a pointed irony here.) Tom Hulce (Parenthood, Fearless) finds the passion in the genius and his performance suggests that the here exaggerated coarseness of Mozart was perhaps an integral part of an uninhibited nature that also allowed boundless creativity to flow.
The lavish eye-filling production, filmed mostly in Prague, aimed for historical authenticity in a period of Baroque extremes of fashion. Forman’s direction is impeccable, sustaining the unique tone on which the production hinges. Even with twenty added minutes in the new director’s cut, Amadeus at just over three hours is not a minute too long–an unmitigated pleasure, one to be savored in a theater with a first rate sound system. The DVD is a must for every music and film lover, but it cannot substitute for the grandeur of Amadeus on the large screen.