Amadeus (1984)

I do not like musical biopics. Amadeus, a biographical picture about the musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is one of my favorite movies. The two previous statements suggests that either Amadeus is either somehow not really a musical biopic, or somehow better than the rest of them, and I’d argue both of those statements are true to some degree.

For starters, Amadeus is adapted from a stage play about the lives of two composers, Mozart (Tom Hulce) and his professional foil Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). And it is heavily dramatized; “mythologized” might be the better word. The characteristics and relationships at the heart of Amadeus are larger-than-life inventions, at best very loosely based on the historical truth. Thus, by fabricating, Amadeus can subvert that usual problem of biopics, which is that humans’ real lives tend not to be very cinematic or interesting. (Note that I do not see historical inaccuracy as a flaw of biopics; I’d rather watch a good story than an informative one.)

And, secondly, Amadeus is a more impressive piece of filmmaking than any other musical biopic I’ve ever seen. It has world-class period production values. Full-scale operas are recreated at real European opera houses from the classical era. Simply by scoring the film to Mozart’s best pieces increases the gravity of the film’s tenor, heightening the themes to operatic levels. The acting is tremendous — both Hulce and Abraham are phenomenal, but I agree with the Academy that Abraham’s performance as the guilt-wracked has-been Salieri, narrating the story in a state of semi-sanity, is the bigger tour de force. (They received rare double-lead nominations for one film in Best Actor.)

The film opens with an aged Salieri confessing to Mozart’s murder decades earlier. When a priest comes to the mental asylum to hear Salieri’s confession, we flashback to the final years of Mozart’s too-short life from Salieri’s perspective. Mozart has all the God-given talent any man could ever want, but in the body of petulant German prankster who can’t get the respect and money of nobles in the Italian court where he’s employed. Meanwhile, Salieri has all the respect and stability a man could want, but lacks the divine genius that Mozart possesses. The celibate Salieri views the world in terms of his relationship with God, to whom he has devoted his musical faculties, and feels slighted by his Creator that someone like Mozart would have such rare skill. Thus, Salieri finds himself in an envious, almost lustful, rage towards Mozart and his work.

It’s a feast of writing and acting, as the ideas layer on top of each other. There’s the relationship between Mozart and Salieri, in which Salieri pretends to mentor Mozart, but secretly blocks his path to success. This has echoes with Mozart’s relationship with his own father, Leopold. Everything in this film is Father and Son, with the music driving the story being the Holy Spirit.

Salieri exploits the poisoned father-son relationship between Mozart and Leopold upon Leopold’s death, by dressing up like him as an anonymous benefactor paying Mozart to write a Requiem Mass: a fake ghost asking for a fake funeral. As Salieri schemes, over and over, on how to exact revenge on Mozart, he creates subpar musical simulacra and succumbs to his own childish cruelties, nearly seducing Mozart’s wife. Slowly, he realizes his obsession with what Mozart has the he does not is bringing him no closer to the eternal salvation and edification that was Salieri’s desire as a musical creator — a celebrator of all that is good and holy — in the first place.

All of this drama is wrapped in a constant struggle between the divine and the sinful. In fact, the film culminates with those two forces merging, the literal murder via worship — Salieri transcribing the Lacrimosa, its very composition sucking the life out of Mozart. Then again, it all may be in Salieri’s head; his film-closing cries of “mediocrity!” accompany the priest’s befuddled expression. Could a piece of music really be a death rattle and murder weapon? It’s a tantalizing question that ambiguously reverberates as the film closes.

This is Milos Forman’s best film, and his best direction, as much as I love One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Forman captures both the sweeping hugeness of the production and the minute little gestures that bring so much depth to the film. He gets incredible work out of the entire cast; there’s not really a performance that brings anything less than what the movie needs. The exception is Elizabeth Berridge as Mozart’s wife, who is fine, but can’t quite bridge the transition her early cluelessness and her later misery smoothly. (Hulce’s descent as Mozart is much more potent among the couple.)

This won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and it is to me what a Best Picture conceptually should be: The peak of Hollywood filmmaking in cinematic power, ascending to a higher plane of art… even if it is a musical biopic. Amadeus is a masterpiece, and so I think I can forgive it for that.

Is It Good?

Masterpiece: Tour De Good (8/8)

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