“All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing and then made me mute.”
I had Amadeus pegged as an Oscar-bait epic. I was turned off for a long time by the period set pieces, the length, the historical narrative, and I was overcome with an overall sense of boredom when I pictured myself learning about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for 3 hours. However, when a film on your list pops up on Netflix, there’s really no reason to avoid it; you never know how long you’ll have until the powers that be will snatch it away. I’m delighted, then, to say that I actually really enjoyed Amadeus. I think the ways it works against these Oscar-bait notion (and perhaps plays into them as well) are keys to its success, and it’s also just far more active and exciting than I could have ever imagined.
Amadeus follows the story of Mozart (Tom Hulce), but it’s told from the perspective of his longtime rival Antonio Sallieri (F. Murray Abraham). In a fairly conventional plot device, the entire film is presented in flashback as Sallieri reflecting back on his life. Through him, we get a glimpse at the life and death of one of the greatest musical geniuses the world has ever known. We also see Sallieri’s contempt, not only for Mozart but for God. There’s a spiritual current that runs through the story wherein Sallieri seems to be the only person truly capable of acknowledging Mozart’s genius, but he is furious at God for bestowing such greatness in the hands of an immature, arrogant boy. The film is essentially the major points of Mozart’s life, as told by Sallieri, and is a surprisingly tasty, refreshing work of storytelling.
The film is set up for success with its screenplay by Peter Shaffer (based on his own book of the same title). While a simpler mind would have presented Mozart as a hero, perhaps an underdog story of genius and a rise to greatness, Shaffer fuels us with offbeat intrigue as we come to understand him through the jealousy of Mozart’s lesser rival. This is still a movie about the life of Mozart, and its (somewhat fabricated) history on this front is fascinating, but it’s even more so a movie about both of these men and how they continue to cross paths. The religious element gives a vengeful cynicism for F. Murray Abraham to play with, and he gives one of the most striking performance you’d find in this type of film. Meanwhile, my favorite person to watch in this movie was Tom Hulce himself. He depicts Mozart exactly as one would expect a child prodigy to behave: wild and immaturely. His clothing, his actions, his ridiculous laugh – they add such fun little moments that keep this movie watchable for just about all 3 hours of its runtime. (I believe I was watching the Director’s Cut.)
For a period piece, there’s also some really stunning adherence to style and historical placement that give this film a fun contrast to its actual story. There’s a sense of decorum that runs throughout the film, a sense of mandatory chivalry and respect. Characters bow when they meet and wish each other well, and it all seems so silly and often ironic against the actual motives and actions of the story. Mozart seems to stand out as a very modern character, challenging the form of music itself but also challenging how a successful man in this era should present himself. He’s awkward, overly ambitious, speaks out of turn, and even disrespects the Emperor, all in pursuit of the music that he loves. I think Jeffey Jones gives a fun portrayal of Emperor Joseph II, mostly silent and reserved, falling back on the words of his advisers. He brings a lot of great comedy to the film, and he grounds it in its period setting. Elizabeth Berridge also feels like one of the most fully realized characters as Mozart’s wife, and she (similar to Mozart) feels very modern and rebellious, standing out delightfully against the historical backdrop.
The movie tends to drag a bit as it reaches the end, and I’m of the opinion that we maybe don’t need to see so much of Mozart’s later life and that we should have focused more on Sallieri’s final act of vengeance at this point, but it still ties up nicely and leaves you impressed with the scale and sustainability of the film. It’s a movie ripe with memorable moments. After finishing the film, you’ll be drawn to Youtube just to watch some of these scenes play out again. It still panders to Oscar-bait elements, but I failed to predict how much this is a movie about people, and I will always watch movies with this sort of driving force. It’s dynamic, exciting and well executed, so I really don’t think you can go wrong with this one.
Films Left to Watch: 902