Amadeus

[Originally published in The Weekly, September 19, 1984]

A dark street; equally dark Panavision screen. Snow falling; offcenter, a street lamp. The cry “Mozart!” and a startling chord of music. Somewhere behind a door in Vienna, a forgotten old man named Antonio Salieri lifts a razor to his throat because, he maintains, many years ago he murdered Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Servants burst in, find him bloodied, bundle him off to a combination hospital and asylum. As he is bounced through the wind-whipped night streets, Salieri hears the music of his long-dead victim, brighter than the bright upper-story windows behind which a party of revelers dance and dance and dance.

The first thing to be said about Milos Forman’s new film Amadeus is that if you didn’t already know it was derived from a stageplay, you’d never guess it from watching the movie. It’s a vibrant, supple, splendidly cinematic thing—intimate, concrete, fluid, and wide-ranging in time and space as Peter Shaffer’s clever play could never have been in the most dexterous of stagings. At the same time, we must insist—since we are, after all, in such heavy-duty cultural territory—that the film goes about its business with a grace and assurance that seems cheeky only in seeming so effortless, so spontaneous, so … Mozartean?

The film, like the play, recounts the Viennese period of the composer’s life and career, from the time when he first caught the ear of the Emperor Joseph II and won a commission to compose the first opera in German, Abduction from the Seraglio, through the creation of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, to The Magic Flute and his death at age 35. We are privy to these events not as solemn musical history nor after the stodgy/silly manner of countless Hollywood-reverential biopix of old. Shaffer’s categorization of his play will serve for his screenplay and Forman’s film—”a fantasia based on fact”—and the key figure in this fantasia is not Mozart but his mortal enemy and most eloquent remembrancer Salieri, who also happens to be our narrator.

Whereas Mozart poses the classic example of an artistic genius ill-rewarded in his own day, Salieri stands in counterpoint as the conventional artificer heaped with public honor—he was the emperor’s court composer—and success. But even in his heyday, long before his musical creations were eclipsed by the dead Mozart’s, Salieri writhed in private agony at the knowledge that Mozart was not only infinitely his superior as an artist—he was precisely the artist Salieri himself had always yearned and prayed to be. And such an unworthy vessel! That this, this grotesque child-man, this wanton, sybaritic connoisseur of fart jokes and low carouse, with moon face and loon’s laugh, should be “loved of God,” elected to sing His melodies on Earth; while Salieri, chaste worshipper of the divinity of genius, should be the custodian of mere pedestrian talent—intolerable!

Amadeus is a work of exquisite irony and counterpoint. I’m sure that’s true of Shaffer’s original play, but it must be even truer of the film, since here Shaffer and Forman are able to give us both the Salieri of Mozart’s time, rising nearer and nearer to the pitch of cosmic rage, and the wrinkled relic purring out his triumphant confessional decades afterward. In F. Murray Abraham’s cunning performance, the gray Salieri, ancient, enfeebled, suicidal, comes off younger and gayer than his dark young counterpart. If not in the dark night of the soul, then in those moments when he can relish telling his tale, Salieri seems positively beatified by guilt. (“I will ruin Your incarnation,” the elder Salieri pronounces, his image replacing that of the young Salieri who has just forsworn God and set his crucifix upon the fire—and then he sinks cozily lower in his chair, beaming the sweetest of sweet-old-man smirks.) The sliest of Shaffer and Forman’s ironies almost gets past us: that there really was no “murder,” and that Salieri, who fancies he has achieved as Mozart’s assassin what he could never achieve as his rival, probably had no material impact on Mozart’s life whatsoever.

***

Period pieces always pose a host of challenges to the filmmaker that more mundane genres do not—for instance, how to be mundane. Forman gets the idiom exactly right. People don’t make speeches in the movie, they talk. The sets and locations (largely unreconstructed in Forman’s native Prague standing in for Vienna) never feel gratuitously grand. We can believe that people live and work and play in these spaces; that the books on Salieri’s shelves, for instance, were not borrowed from a museum and installed as set dressing, but have been read, in the natural course of events, by the man who resides among them. Again and again we are struck to realize that the actors don’t sound old, don’t seem to be wheezing in the badly ventilated air of another time; they don’t even, with one delightfully comic exception, seem to have troubled to adopt any accent save the one in which they normally speak. What a burden is lifted from the filmmakers’ shoulders, and ours. How apt a tactic, too, to portray a world in which, after all, geniuses did not necessarily behave as, conditioned by years of cliché, we understand they are supposed to behave.

In this connection, Forman has succeeded much better than I’d have thought possible with his casting of Tom Hulce in the title role. Roman Polanski, I have been given to understand, created the part, and certainly I’d have given anything to see him in it—one protean, multinational genius incarnating another. Hulce, the hapless pledge of Animal House and veteran of other callow-young-man parts, doesn’t begin to bring a comparable weight, let alone Pirandellian resonance, to the role; and late in the film, when Salieri is essentially offscreen for about a reel and the movie skirts the drink-and-cough clichés of the doomed-artist biopic, Hulce can’t sustain it and viewer faith may get a bit frayed. But Hulce doesn’t disgrace himself, he plays with all the wit and gusto at his command, and just maybe he too, in his very limitations as a not especially charismatic presence with, moreover, little of F. Murray Abraham’s superb technical skill, is what the dynamics of Forman’s scheme call for—the genius as inveterate boy.

The rest of the casting is unimpeachable. Elizabeth Berridge makes a hoydenish, apple-cheeked Constanze, the landlady’s daughter who shares Salieri’s lust for sweets and claims Mozart for a husband. She makes Stanzie’s slow-witted but ineluctable rise to a posture of dominance damnably credible. Jeffrey Jones is wonderful as the emperor, poised between fatuity and good sense; an entirely decent fellow, his looks are somehow deliciously off, as if generations of complacent breeding had produced a monarch just a touch bovine. Charles Kay brings the silken deviousness of a latterday Claude Rains to Count Orsini-Rosenberg, Salieri’s chef ally in attempting to keep Herr Mozart in his place. And Patrick Hines, as Kapellmeister Bonno, gets an amazing, hilarious range of diplomatic apprehensiveness with scarcely a word of intelligible dialogue, through the artful deployment of his round watery eyes, acres of waffling jowl, and sagging girth in the corners and backgrounds of court scenes.

The film has been beautifully made at every level of design and execution, but one department in particular demands to be mentioned. If anyone but Nena Danevic and Michael Chandler is called up to receive the next Oscar for film editing, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deserve to have Mozart’s whooping cough of a laugh disturbing their rest for all eternity. What Forman achieved only fitfully in his previous film, Ragtime—coaxing the drift of movements and characters and history into the musical rhythms of that film’s titular ragtime beat—he absolutely achieves here. Amadeus doesn’t just reproduce a good deal of Mozart’s music on the soundtrack, it also translates that musicality into a rapturously assured editorial movement.

The cutting between Salieri’s scenes as narrator and the past events narrated is not merely a matter of occasionally moving from past to present—the two time-frames and the two levels of Salieri’s consciousness are merged as if by poetic enjambment, with gestures, sighs, shudders of perception and exasperation stimulated in one location in time and space and enacted, fulfilled, in another. And I have never before seen, as I have seen in the sequences of Abduction from the Seraglio and Figaro being premiered in the state theater, such crystalline refraction, in the blink of an eye, of the relationship between performance (onstage), inspiration (Mozart conducting the performance), and the perceived meaning of that performance and that inspiration among the various members of the onscreen audience.

Such editing honors Mozart’s own genius. But it also honors Amadeus‘s ultimate irony. Salieri is Mozart’s best audience and truest admirer. As he sits watching the dark, obsessive brilliance of Don Giovanni, and recognizes the psychological breach through which he might attack his archrival, Forman and Danevic–Chandler, through rhythms and juxtapositions of preternatural subtlety, implicate him in the spectacle. We see that, for all his enmity, he is playing Leporello to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It’s only fair to name that order of filmmaking as Salieri himself, a villain of absolute integrity, never fails to name his enemy’s music: miraculous.

The Weekly, September 19, 1984

Copyright © 1984 by Richard T. Jameson

P.S. Amadeus lost the Editing award to The Killing Fields.