By: Anthony Miglieri
Released in 1984, Amadeus was a critical sensation that swept the Academy Awards, taking home a total of 8 statues. Among these richly deserved awards were Best Actor for F. Murray Abraham as well as Best Picture, the second of such victories for director Milos Forman after One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest took the top prize for 1975. Despite the early acclaim though, Amadeus seems to have generally fallen between the cracks of movie history, as it is nowadays rarely mentioned next to other classics of the period. However, Amadeus remains a massive, stately, and unruly masterpiece.
Amadeus centers on the inner lives and internal demons of musical rivals Antonio Salieri and the renowned Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 18th century Vienna. Theirs is not a rivalry in the ordinary sense. Although Mozart recognizes Salieri as a fellow composer, he never seems to feel that he needs to compete: he is simply the best. Salieri, on the other hand, painfully realizes that his own work is comparatively mediocre and is deeply disturbed by Mozart’s ability to create exquisite, inventive works of art with seemingly little effort. The true rivalry in Amadeus is between Salieri and himself, as he loses faith in his own abilities and in God, who he feels cheated by for not having been given talent like Mozart’s. The film’s framing device, which allows Salieri to narrate the film’s events to us as an old, asylum-ridden man, punctuates the composer’s profound struggles.
Being a period piece, the production Amadeus necessitates the creation of incredibly elaborate set and costume design in order to effectively convey the time and place. Indeed, these intricate trappings, which also won Oscars, are impressive, but they easily could have dragged the movie down with their minutiae. It is one of Amadeus’ greatest triumphs that this is not the case. Masterfully utilizing a screenplay adapted by Peter Shaffer from his own play, Milos Forman eschews the conventional, languid biopic of Mozart that could potentially have been made. Instead, the vulgarity and searing emotion of the script and Forman’s muscular, assured direction make this one of the most essential, fastest moving 3-hour epics out there.
Even with the necessary control demonstrated by Forman, Amadeus would have been a failure if the two lead performances, by F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce, were not completely compelling. Fortunately, they are. Abraham as the sulking Salieri is fantastic, calibrating to perfection each note of the composer’s alternately rueful, scheming, and wistful demeanor. Almost as impressive is Hulce, whose loud-mouthed, damaged, yet loving and sensitive Mozart is a joy to behold onscreen. The supporting cast, especially Jeffrey Jones as the hilariously naive Emperor Joseph II, wonderfully fill out the composers’ universe.
With any one aspect of this magnificent production out of place, the whole thing would likely topple, and yet it remains a brilliantly sustained masterwork, certainly one of the best films of the 1980s. The greatness of Amadeus lies in its being a singular work of art, intertwining crudeness and profundity with a nearly matchless precision.