Rating: 4 stars (out of 4)
Amadeus (1984): Dir. Milos Forman. Written by: Peter Shaffer. Based upon the play of the same name by Shaffer. Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Roy Dotrice, and Jeffrey Jones. Rated R for brief nudity. Running time: 160 minutes.
Less a historical retelling than a fiction that draws upon history, Amadeus brought the successful stage play to the screen in a triumphant adaptation. Even if the story loses some its surreal theatricality in the process, it stirs the emotions as few films can.
As an old man, composer Antonio Salieri recounts how he allegedly murdered his rival Mozart (literally and artistically). Even as Salieri recognizes Mozart’s genius, he does everything in his power to squelch his works in the public sphere. Fueled by jealousy and arrogance, Salieri seeks the destruction of his tormentor whose only crime is reminding him of his own mediocrity.
Amidst the opulence, director Forman never loses a sense of tragicomic fun. Salieri’s realizations about his own inadequacy play out hilariously, thanks to some clever staging and daring editing choices. And half the fun is watching the Austrian ruling class react to the childish antics of Herr Mozart, who tosses traditional mores out the window, along with the stuffy music. The humor never distracts, however; it reflects Salieri’s perceptions of being mocked by God.
Of course, it helps that we retain the utterly beautiful descriptions of music from the play by Peter Shaffer. The cast imbues it with grace and humor by playing it all straight (hence Jeffrey Jones’s wickedly funny turn as the Emperor). Tom Hulce brings an impishness to his portrayal of Mozart, but also adds fragility and insecurity (perhaps a key to his genius?) And all due credit goes to F. Murray Abraham as Salieri, master of the evaporating smile. He makes us believe in the ecstasy of music and the cruelty of the human heart.
I’ve seen this film more than any other film on this countdown, and I keep on returning to it. It shatters the soul and has so much fun doing it.
Next film: Out of Africa, 1985