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Classic Cinema Corner: Amadeus

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When the American Film Institute released their updated list of the 100 Most Important American Films ten years after the original list, there were a number of alterations that I felt were worthy of my attention. I was pleased to see the inclusion of some films that were absent from the first list (such as Blade Runner, Titanic, and Sophie's Choice were all very welcome in my eyes); other changes I was less than pleased to observe (do Swing Time and Yankee Doodle Dandy really deserve to have this level of acclaim?). 

Of all of these significant changes that have been made to this prestigious list, the removal of the 1982 film Amadeus greatly saddened me. Despite the fact that this Milos Forman-directed classic is fairly recent compared to the majority of the entries on the list, I am continually baffled by how few people have ever viewed the film.  Even if the world of classical music is one that doesn't particularly excite you, this is a very compelling piece of cinema.

The film itself is actually an adaptation of a highly successful stage play written by Peter Shaffer (who also adapted his own work for the screenplay).  It relates the story of an ailing elder man named Antonio Salieri, a brilliant musician whose own considerable talents were overshadowed by those of the considerably more prestigious Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  The film begins with the elderly Salieri attempting to end his life over grief for Mozart's questionable demise, and he is consequently placed in an insane asylum. 

While imprisoned there, Salieri is interviewed by a priest who asks the composer to relate his own encounters with the legendary Mozart.  As the older Salieri reminisces about his younger years as a composer, we are presented with the primary conflict of the film:  Salieri, a steadfast man of God who takes his craft very seriously, cannot understand why the Lord has chosen to bless such a bawdy, brash, and boorish "creature" as Mozart with even stronger talents.  As public and critical attention is removed from Salieri's works and supplanted on Mozart, Salieri becomes determined to bring about Mozart's fall.  At first his attempts to sabotage the success of Mozart is merely professional;  however, as Salieri's frustrations grow, he begins to question whether murder of the young prodigy is the only valid course of action.

There are so many positive elements of this film that it seems inappropriate to only focus on a select few.  The most prominent one in my mind, however, would have to be the performances in the film.  While the entire cast are admirable in their respective performances, F. Murray Abraham (Salieri) and Tom Hulce (Mozart) shine as the two leads.  In the villainous role of Salieri,  Abraham manages to be both despicable and tragic as a tortured soul who is disenchanted from constantly living in the shadow of a greater talent.  As for Hulce, he succeeds in molding the Mozart character into an obscene yet charming figure, and the idea that such a classless figure could seduce the highest levels of society seems feasible after viewing this performance. 

The direction of the film by Milos Forman also deserves considerable recognition.  Forman smoothly transitions between the modern context of the elder Salieri's world and his bitter memories with relative ease.  The lighting and production of the scenes is also of interest.  When the older Salieri is interrogated in the insane asylum, the coloring is bland and lifeless, as if there all of the life in the scene has been flushed from the walls.  However, in the scenes with Mozart, the coloring is grandiose and breathtaking.  The overall lighting and coloring of the film seemingly changes with Mozart.  When one considers that Salieri is responsible for many of the most miserable moments in the life of Mozart, it is as if Salieri's actions are changing the very world around him.  In a word, he "conducts" the world in a way that pleases him.  While those who approach the world of classical music with reluctance will likely enjoy this film regardless, those who find such music to be fascinating will be enthused by the approach of the film.

While this film may not be the most accurate portrayal of the relationship between Salieri and Mozart (in fact, many accounts suggest the two men had great admiration for one another), the story that Shaffer and Forman crafted for the screen is nothing short of captivating.  It was intriguing to see even in the world of the late 1700s, there was no shortage of controversial figures in popular music.  While it is understandable that the American Film Institute could only include so many films on their list of the most important American works, it seems like a cruel travesty that a gem as epic as this seemed to have fled from the consciousness of the critical masses.

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  • duane

    Some of my favorite moments of Amadeus involve Salieri expressing his awe at Mozart’s genius — his amazement at the unmarked originals that Mozart’s wife delivers, the beautiful descriptions by way of narration of certain musical phrases that seemed to pierce Salieri’s heart, his “secret” knowledge that Mozart’s operas were unparalleled, even though they were almost entirely dismissed by everyone else, and so forth. There lies the germ of Salieri’s internal conflict.