Amadeus (1984)

“Astounding! It was actually… it was beyond belief. But they showed no corrections of any kind. Not one. He had simply written down music already finished in his head! Page after page of it as if he were just taking dictation. And music, finished as no music is ever finished. Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall. It was clear to me that sound I had heard in the Archbishop’s palace had been no accident. Here again was the very voice of God! I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink-strokes at an absolute beauty.”

I’ve watched ‘Amadeus’, directed in 1984 by Miloš Forman, many times. It’s a rich, nuanced biopic of Mozart that puts the composer’s music front and centre but it’s also a powerful meditation on talent, jealousy and mediocrity. It follows the attempts of rival composer Antonio Salieri as he tries to sabotage Mozart’s career and then, as he makes an audacious attempt to persuade Mozart to compose a requiem for his own death that Salieri can pass off as his own. This is more ‘Hollywood’ than Derek Jarman’s 1986 movie ‘Caravaggio’, but shares a similar punk-like approach to the subject. Mozart, as in the source play, is portrayed as a selfish, arrogant but innocent drunk who just happens to be blessed with genius, whilst Salieri is portrayed as a sober and Machiavellian prude who happens to be cursed as much as Mozart is blessed. Highlights are the Fellini-like extended opera sequences: Forman is happy to dwell on these for far longer and with far fewer cuts than is common with modern movies. The script is magnificent – more lithe than the stage-play but still baroque: the dialogue, particularly Salieri’s, is like a firework display. It contains possibly the best descriptions of music and composition in any other movie. F. Murray Abraham’s stellar performance, both as a middle aged Salieri and, in make-up, as the elderly version committed to an asylum is extraordinary: every moment he’s on screen is magnetic. This is a big budget, extravagant movie that unrepentantly embeds the emotion within the spectacle, but the performances and the beautiful attention to detail of the design make watching this a fully immersive experience. But all the way through, it’s that music that ties it together. More than any other biopic, ‘Amadeus’ achieves a film that presents the art as much as the artist.

Would I recommend it? Yes – double bill with ‘Caravaggio’ to get the contrast between the spectacle and authenticity of one and the joyful anachronism of the other.

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