Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Antonio Salieri

Film: Amadeus
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I had forgotten just how good Amadeus really is.

I mean that just as it sits. I remembered it as great in a way that few films are, of course. It’s great and grand in that “really earned Best Picture” way that even fewer films are. It’s the sort of film that, even if you had another horse in the race, you couldn’t really object to its winning. It’s a piece of Hollywood legend that Laurence Olivier announced the winner without even opening the envelope, but there really wasn’t any doubt which film deserved to win. I remembered all of this. I remembered Tom Hulce’s insane giggle and F. Murray Abraham’s combination of adoration and hatred. But I forgot just how damn good this film is, how entertaining it is, and how much I enjoy watching it all unfold.

And the music. Oh, the music. The glorious, unreal music that runs through this entire film from start to finish. The music is so sublime that even without the rest of the things that make this film so watchable and so both good and great, it would still be worth nearly three hours of your time simply to listen to it. Throughout we are graced with compositions from Salieri and Mozart, and are given key pieces of Mozart’s great works including The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, and his epic requiem mass. How the hell did I forget all of this?

Films like Amadeus are the reason that, when I first started this project, I decided to rewatch all of the films I had previously seen. There is no way I could do justice to this film from a memory of five years ago or even two years ago. There is simply too much here to see, too much nuance, too much madness and passion to keep in one’s mind for any length of time. No, Amadeus needs to be discussed and written about while it’s all still spinning around in one’s head.

The plot revolves around the now-ancient Antonio Salieri (Abraham), who has been confined to a mental institution. Salieri blames himself for the death of Mozart (Hulce) and attempts suicide. The next morning, a priest (Richard Frank) arrives to hear Salieri’s confession. Instead of the standard sort of church confessional, Salieri tells the story of his association with Mozart, and in so doing tells both his own story and that of Mozart himself.

We learn of Salieri’s early days and his promise to God to be faithful and chaste if he is given the ability to become a great composer of music. We learn of his meeting with Mozart, who proves to be an obscene little man with a manic laugh, but is nonetheless capable of speaking with music in a way that Salieri equates with the voice of God Himself. We learn of the jealousy, of Mozart’s problems with the court of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones, in one of his best roles). We also get quite a bit of Mozart’s spendthrift ways, endless parties, and his strange relationship with his domineering and demanding father (Roy Dotrice).

And then we get to the meat of the tale—Salieri’s plan to kill off Amadeus. His plan is devilishly simple. The death of Mozart’s father gives him his in—he shows up at Mozart’s house dressed in a costume Herr Mozart wore to a costume ball and commissions a requiem mass for an unknown dead man, heavily implying that he is the returned spirit of Leopold Mozart and that the mass is for him. Mozart’s financial situation forces him to take the work despite working himself to death. Salieri’s plan is to find a way to kill Mozart, and then claim the requiem mass as his own, written in honor of the man who actually wrote it. Ah, the death of Mozart truly brought out the genius in Salieri, people would say, and Salieri would have his revenge, living forever by claiming the work of the man he killed.

Tom Hulce is often good in films, but he was never better than here. He plays Wolfgang Mozart with a manic intensity that is entirely believable. This is a man driven by a demon that forces him to write non-stop, pulling fully and perfectly formed compositions out of the air as if (Salieri describes it this way, in fact) simply taking dictation. He is unable to stop himself from working and just as unable to stop himself from indulging in any pleasure he can find, much to the distress of his wife Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge). He is a man addicted to everything he encounters, swallowing up enough life in his short time on Earth to last several lifetimes.

But with that, this is first and foremost F. Murray Abraham’s film. He is excellent as Salieri in his prime, battling with Mozart for fame and royal privilege. Nowhere is this more evident than in the costume ball, where Abraham holds a mask in front of his face and is left nothing to emote with but his eyes, which are unreal in their intensity. But as good as he is in this role, he is transcendent as the ancient, wizened Salieri gleefully confessing his crime to the priest. It is this part of the role that won him the Best Actor Oscar in my opinion, because it is this version of Salieri that is so memorable. There is both supreme pain and pleasure, both guilt and a complete lack of guilt in everything he says and does. He revels in the crime he believes he committed and is simultaneously wracked with guilt at depriving the world of the unwritten symphonies and operas of a true genius.

Even this is just the tip of the iceberg. Everything about this film is beautifully, perfectly done. Forman’s direction is inventive and dynamic. The costuming is as lush and sumptuous as any period piece. I see I’ve neglected a number of smaller, important roles. Cynthia Nixon appears as a maid who stays with the Mozarts, paid for by Salieri to investigate. Simon Callow has an important role as a vaudevillian who commissions “The Magic Flute” near the end of Mozart’s life. There’s so much here that I have trouble thinking of where to begin and, once begun, where to go. Amadeus is far more than the sum of its excellent parts, and that’s saying quite a bit.

It’s worth noting that there’s not a great deal of historical accuracy here. It’s true that Salieri spent his last year in a sanitarium for his health, and equally true that his music entered a period of decline. But he and Mozart were evidently little more than friendly rivals, and even collaborated on music. Salieri became a widely-respected instructor, having as his pupil no less than Beethoven. Accusing him of murder this long after the fact seems cruel, but it turns out to have been cruelty to be kind—the music of Salieri went through a fad, and there is evidently a yearly opera festival centered on his work. Even Mozart’s eventual location in a “common grave” is a misrepresentation of the truth. A “common grave” of the time meant only that he wasn’t nobility—he wasn’t dumped into a mass pit and covered in lime. But no matter. History sometimes needs to give way to drama and storytelling, and nowhere is that more evident than here.

Needless to say, this is a film of staggering singularity in my opinion. Nearly 30 years old, it has not lost a single ounce of its power or passion, and 30 years from now, it will still be just as grand, just as great, and most importantly, just as good. I should watch this more often than I have. So should you.

Why to watch Amadeus: It’s so much better than you remember.
Why not to watch: If you find a reason not to watch this, I don’t want to talk to you.


  1. A most transcendent review, and I agree with every word. About the only thing I could add to the praise you've already given is the incredible makeup job done for the elder Salieri.

  2. What, no "Rock me Amadeus" as the title? Somewhere Falco is crying (if he's still alive. I have a vague memory of catching a news blurb that he died...or was that Gary Numan? If only there was a way to search out these answers via computer.)

    I really liked this film, too. The killer scene for me was the one where Mozart "fixes" Salieri's greeting march that was written especially for the occasion of his arrival. Even an untrained ear like mine could tell Mozart's version, improvised on the spot, was better. There's also the whole "he did NOT just do that" element.

    By the way, did you see the original version, or the even longer Director's Cut? I've never seen the latter.

    Many years ago I worked with a woman, a fellow computer programmer at the time, who HATED this movie. She hadn't gotten a computer degree; hers was in classical music studies, but she found it hard finding a job with that degree. She hated the portrayal of her hero, in her mind the greatest man who ever lived, Mozart, as a not-so-likable, very much flawed, human being. The laugh, especially, bothered her.

    The stupidest complaint I've seen about this movie (and I've seen it at least half a dozen times, always on IMDB, and always written by self-identified Brits) is that the film has "stupid American accents" in it. Apparently Germans, Austrians, and Italians, when conversing constantly in English with each other, as Germans, Austrians, and Italians are wont to do, would only be doing it with German, Austrian, and Italian accents. I have always asked these complainers why they don't have a problem that English is being spoken at all. If the movie is going to go that far from reality then the accents they are speaking with is irrelevant. I've yet to receive a reply to any of these responses.

  3. @Kevin--you're right. It's pretty amazing. He looks like a wicked old man, but you can still see Salieri underneath it all.

    @Chip--I almost went with a Falco-inspired title, but I almost never use the actual title of a List film in the review name. That was literally the only thing that stopped me.

    I watched the theatrical cut. I've never seen the director's cut, either.

    I did a little research (little, as in a quick Wikipedia consultation) that suggests that Mozart did have a scatological sense of humor. The laugh is certainly an invention of Hulce (or Forman, or someone else), but who cares, really? There's a lovely moment when he's desperately pitching the Marriage of Figaro, which had been banned where he says something along the lines of "I am a vulgar man, but I assure you my music is not." That sums up Mozart's character from the film to me.

    The scene you mention is a fun one all the way around. There's the slow walk into the chamber, and then Mozart bowing to the wrong person. And then him showing off, not knowing or caring that every moment is galling Salieri into intense hatred. It's just so perfectly done.

  4. Excellent reveiw of an excellent movie. It has been a long time since I saw it, what I remember most is that it triggered a Mozart fad for me. How can you not be sucked up in the music?
    I suppose the movie works best if you do not know too much of the actual story. Too much digress from reality can grate on me, but in this case I prefer the fictional version. A duel in music, that is a neat and romantic idea, no?

  5. I saw this movie for the first time a few weeks ago and agree with pretty much everything you've said. It completely surprised me. The scene in which Salieri has the mask in front of his face and is only able to emote through his eyes is brilliant.

  6. This is one of those films on the List that I'm really looking forward to getting to. I remember bits of it, and generally liking it overall, but not much else, so your brilliant review has inspired me to bump it up my list a little and get to it sooner.

    However, I could never quite get over how they all speak in stupid American accents, despite being German, Austrian and Italian. I don't have a problem with them conversing constantly in English - who wants to read subtitles, after all - but they should at least have tried with the accents. Kind of ruins the film really.

    1. I was wondering if you were going to comment, and if you had read mine. Thanks for playing along. It was very funny.

  7. @TSorensen--If I'm going to spend time listening to classical music, my first go-to is Beethoven or Mussorgsky, but I can't deny that Mozart was a true genius. So was Bach, but he's to baroque for my tastes. And yes, this is a case where I really don't care about historical accuracy. I'm much more involved in the story that's presented.

    @Tom--This felt like a first watch in a lot of ways. I'm still a little surprised at how involved I got.

    @Jay--I can't see you being disappointed, although I have built it up quite a bit. Also, that's the best laugh I've had in a week.

  8. Please...It's not a holy relic.

    I couldn't resist saying that , but agree totally. In a four star rating system, it's difficult not to give this movie 5 stars.

  9. Steve, I'm sad to admit that I hadn't seen Amadeus until a little over a year ago. I'm right with you on it being amazing, and I feel silly for waiting so long to check it out. F. Murray Abraham is amazing, and the production design is top-notch. It's like what Barry Lyndon might have been if I cared about the characters.

  10. Excellent review. Your excitement and appreciation for Amadeus rings clear. Sadly,I've never seen Amadeus. I'm sure I shied away at first because of the lengthy runtime, then it just faded away. At any rate, halfway through reading your post I paused, hopped over to Netflix and added it to my queue. Looking forward to the experience.

  11. @Ken...Agreed. I'm still wondering why I forgot how much I like it. I even went through a period about six years ago where I watched it all the time and I still forgot.

    @Dan--we all have those films we kick ourselves about. I've got one coming up that has been around for most of my life I've never seen, so I'll be embarassing myself in that respect very soon. And good point about Barry Lyndon--perfect observation.

    @Reel--It is long, but it never feels long.

  12. I remember it as awesome, and your post just confirmed it. As you stated, the music alone makes it worth watching, not to mention the fabulous performances. As for how not historically accurate the film is, that's Hollywood. LOL! But, at least Salieri had the last laugh as his music was rediscovered and is not appreciated by many.

  13. I haven't seen this movie since high school, so I can't comment on my thoughts on it because... Y'know, it's been over 15 years for me. I'll see it again then make up my mind. However, your post has certainly increased my anticipation in seeing it again. In all honesty, I'm a little anxious about how the opera is presented, I hope it's top notch, but worried it will fall a little flat as most cinematic recordings of opera are wont to do.

  14. @Kim--Yeah, this is one that I shrug my shoulders on with the accuracy. I don't care that the story has been changed because the story presented is so good. I feel a little sorry for Salieri in the moment, but, as you say, he got a lot more attention after this film came out.

    @Sio--I can't speak to the presentation of the opera. It looked and sounded fine to me, but I'm hardly an opera fan. I know they don't include the real ending of Don Giovanni, but that's about all I've got.

  15. I still remember the disbelief that I had that such an important role was given to "Pinto" and the taste of crow that came upon seeing it.

    1. No kidding. For me, the real key to a great performance is that I cannot imagine another person in the role, and I can't for Mozart.

  16. "Why not to watch: If you find a reason not to watch this, I don’t want to talk to you." -- heh, heh...

    I couldn't agree more with your review. What a wonderfully made movie.

    1. There are times, and Amadeus was one, where I really can't think of any reason not to watch. There's no good reason to avoid a film this great.