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September 1, 2002

Amadeus
This is a review of the original theatrical cut of Amadeus as seen on a DVD so old I had to turn it over in the middle of the picture. There is a director’s cut (oh how I loathe the phrase) which was released earlier this year. I haven’t seen it, but at least one additional scene in that cut explains something I wasn’t so sure about in the original film. I first saw this movie years ago, as a youngster, and seeing it again this weekend makes me realize what an impact it must have had on me. This is a picture of historical grandeur, concerned with concepts not limited to the bygone context and easily accessible to a large audience. It’s a lovely film with pretty modern subject matter set in the 18th Century. It’s operatic.

As a production, Amadeus is terrific. Shot in the gorgeous surviving districts of Prague, the film’s locations have an authenticity that elevates everything else. Since the score is entirely the music of Mozart, we’re also spared the curse of 1980s period pictures: the synthesizer. Wardrobe is wonderful, fitting both the period and the individual characters. Sure, Mozart wears wigs like everybody else does, but his aren’t like everybody else’s. He’s got spiky pompadours that suggest a bit of the punk rock movement, and Thomas Hulce (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) gives a performance to match. Hulce makes Mozart at once an arrogant court fool and a likeable fop artiste.

Since the film is told from the perspective of maestro Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), so much of the story’s punch falls on Abraham’s performance. A great deal of jealous insight and insight on jealousy is written into Salieri’s dialogue. It’s sometimes chilling and sometimes pitiful, and whatever impact it carries on its own, Abraham doubles it with his work. He shows us so much more about Salieri than we’re told. Salieri believes he has murdered Mozart, but that’s just more selfishness on his part. Mozart is killed by his liver, most likely. But Salieri wants so madly to carry some of the weight Mozart will in history that he’ll settle for being known as Mozart’s killer. The final scene between Salieri and Mozart is the only chance we really get to see them working, get to understand what composing is to them. Perhaps it’s the fascination of seeing maestros talk shop, but the scene is so moving and so descriptive of geniuses and jealousy that it makes sense for Milos Forman to withold a scene of actual composition until the end. By the time we see it, we’re hungry for it. When it’s over, we want more. Much to Abraham’s credit, Salieri isn’t strong in this scene. He’s weak.

What the director’s cut better explains is the relationship between Salieri and Mozart’s wife, Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge). In the beginning, Constanze is sweet and lively. By the end of the picture she’s a cautious business manager, wary of the sort of show biz type that’s likely to appeal to her husband. Early on, she goes to Salieri for help with Mozart’s career. In the end, she doesn’t want him anywhere near Mozart. The director’s cut explains why, but I won’t. Suffice to say that Berridge plays both modes well. As a character, her heart is in the right place even when her accent isn’t.

For the most part, none of the actors seem to attempt any accents, which is fine. Jeffrey Jones (Emperor Joseph II), Abraham and many of the supporting characters in the royal court have great voices. A few (noteably the Mozarts) have domestic American sounds. It makes them seem ordinary and honest, I suppose.

Regardless, I recommend Amadeus. See it again if you’ve seen it already. If you haven’t seen it, you should. A lot of people make referential Salieri jokes and you’ll look smarter if you get them.

Sidebar Recommendation
If you’re like me, the two-faced black mask (an obvious metaphor believably implemented in the reality of the film) is one of the highlights of the picture. If you like creepy gentlemen in deep black outfits and tri-corner hats stalking streets of intricate artistic detail, you should check out Guy Davis’s startling comic book, The Marquis. Fair warning: it’s cast with grotesque demons and hellish imagery that makes terrific use of the time period’s debauchery. It’s not actually historical, either. It’s set in a fantasy land which looks like 18th Century Europe and may or may not be Hell. For a morally ambiguous horror-adventure with pepperbox pistols and an anti-hero that draws gasps of recognition from his enemies (“It’s de Marquis!”), get the trade paperback.

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