I will never go to the opera, but I consume movies like food so watching Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984) is probably the closest I will ever get to spending a night at the opera. There have been plenty of biographies about singers and artists, but most of them are about rock musicians who ascend to greatness before crashing and burning because of their drug addiction. The life of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart doesn’t feature any cocaine-fuelled downfalls, but it still has plenty of drama courtesy of a scheming competing artist straight out of a Shakespeare play.
The movie was a massive critical hit when it was released in the 1980s and made a star out of F. Murray Abraham as the man planning Mozart’s downfall. It also had the unfortunate side effect of having him be pigeon holed as a villain for many movies to come, something that was referenced in the action movie parody Last Action Hero. In that meta movie within a movie the young protagonist tries to warn Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action hero about Abraham’s character by telling him he killed Mozart, which was a bit of a spoiler since I hadn’t seen Amadeus yet and did not know about the story. I got caught up on the whole thing last year when the director’s cut became available on Netflix, and fortunately there is a lot more to the story than a simple murder.
The story does open with composer Antonio Salieri (Abraham) attempting suicide in 1823 for his guilt over the murder of Mozart. Taken to an asylum a priest (Richard Frank) tries to offer him comfort and their conversation eventually veer into Salieri’s confession and life story. In a way it all has to do with fame, since the priest cannot identify any of Salieri’s music, but he has no problem with anything made by Mozart. Yet by all accounts Salieri tried to do everything right to be a great composer by devoting himself to God, avoiding all distractions in life, and working hard. His work was rewarded with respect, money, and a job as the court composer for Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) in Vienna.
Unfortunately his hard work becomes overshadowed by the arrival of Mozart (Tom Hulce) whom Salieri at first admires and thinks his music is a gift from God. Upon meeting Mozart he believes God must be toying with him since Mozart is a buffoon, running around like a child after his gorgeous wife Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge), and has a squeaky laugh that would make The Joker proud. Despite his lack of good manners, decorum, and fear of God, there is no denying that Mozart is a musical genius since he can memorize a march after hearing it only once and is able to compose incredible operas as though they were flowing from his fingers. Seeing an idiot be able to easily create what takes the average person hundreds of hours to perfect is enough to shake your faith in a higher power, which is exactly what happens to Salieri.
However Mozart like all people is flawed. Unlike Salieri he is not good with money and eventually finds himself in financial difficulty. His stern father (Roy Dotrice) does not approve of his lifestyle and his death leaves Mozart emotionally unstable. Salieri sees this as his way to destroy his rival and possibly claim some of his compositions as his own. Through lies and manipulations he worsens Mozart’s situation and inserts himself in his life pretending to be his friend. This is not exactly Mark David Chapman shooting John Lennon, but in a way it is worse since Salieri is taking months to kill his victim.
There are two obvious great performances here. As the titular composer Hulce gets the showier role since Mozart is always the centre of attention whenever he gets into a room, but his performance gets more nuanced and tragic as Mozart gets obsessed with work and falls ill. Then there is Abraham who is not just a villain, since from the beginning we see he feels guilt over his actions. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for a man who was working hard for his work, but then felt jealousy over a rival who seemed to operate on another level than most human beings.
The gorgeous period costumes, set pieces, and the music give the audience the impression they are actually watching an opera, which is greatly helped by the tragic nature of the story. At 160 minutes this makes for a long story, but even if you hate operas you certainly won’t be bored by Forman’s film.