Movie Review: "Amadeus"--Refocus

5/05/2010 Posted by Admin

Movie Review: Refocus


By our guest blogger, John Shannon

Editor's note: With new movies coming out every Friday, new DVDs every Tuesday, and nearly a hundred years worth of film history to draw from, it’s easy for some titles to get lost in the shuffle. “ReFocus” is a weekly column detailing a film that for one reason or another deserves revisiting. Whether it’s simply providing further context or taking a second look at a misplaced classic, we’re here to continue the conversation and give films their proper view.

This week…


“Amadeus” is a film that succeeds at a rather difficult task--adapting a long-revered and famed stage play for the screen. There have been other success stories of this nature, such as “A Streetcar Named Desire,” or the more recent “Doubt,” but for the most part, plays making their way to the big screen lose something in the translation. But not “Amadeus.” Simply put, this is an oft-forgotten classic from the mid-80s, an Academy Award winner that actually deserved its statuette, and an easily accessible, crowd-pleasing film.

Opening in the early 19th century in Vienna, we are told the tale of the bitter rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (played by Tom Hulce) and Antonio Salieri (played by F. Murray Abraham). Two famed composers, both at the height of their talents, and both in competition for the Emperor's favor. Salieri has long been seated as the Emperor's court composer, conducting concerts and operas and gaining the love of the public. As a child, Salieri loved music so much that he prayed to God to be turned into the greatest composer that ever lived, and in return Salieri would give him his chastity and service forever.

Mozart, on the other hand, is the new kid on the block--an imp who loves wine, women, expensive clothes, and a good fart joke or two. He is also a child prodigy, a musical genius practically since birth. The fact that all the talent and genius that Salieri covets resides within such a spoiled brat nearly drives him mad, and the film unfolds as he seeks to destroy Mozart's reputation.

First off, one must address the two lead actors. As Mozart, Tom Hulce (known to most Disney fans as the voice of Quasimodo) acquits himself well as the buffoon-like genius. He strikes the chord that is just this side of annoying (pun intended), but never do we truly hate him. He has been thrust in the limelight since before he can remember, playing for kings and queens all across Europe. He seeks his father's approval, but he also seeks approval and validation from anyone who will listen to his music. He constantly looks for ways to better it, and to create his one true masterpiece. This 'masterpiece' is what drives him to seek pleasure in every corner of his life, looking for the spark of inspiration that he needs. He is portrayed rather sympathetically, and we too hope he can find what he is looking for.

Then we have F. Murray Abraham as Salieri. Honestly, this is one of my favorite performances in any movie, period. It's so rich and stunning. It isn't as bold and outlandish as Tom Hulce's Mozart. He maintains a quiet dignity about him, but in his face we can see his rage and frustration, and the wear and tear of hours and hours sitting at the piano trying to achieve greatness. He sees Mozart's ability to create a beautiful piece of music in mere seconds, and to be able to write it down with no mistakes on the very first try, and it infuriates him. He is an incredibly repressed individual, and over the course of the film, we see him unwind and slip nearly into madness. In most descriptions and summaries of the film, Salieri is painted as the villain, or at least the anti-hero, but I would argue that he is the more sympathetic character than Mozart. Who among us hasn't longed for a talent that someone else takes for granted? Who doesn't have dreams and ambitions that they've sacrificed so much for, and seen others achieve the goal easily and quickly?

The film’s greatest strength comes down to these two rich characters played by two outstanding actors. The rivalry between their characters is furthered by the fact that both Abraham and Hulce were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. I'm sure the irony wasn't lost on either of them (for those who are curious, F. Murray Abraham won).

And now we come to the big question, the mystery the film claims to explore: Did Salieri contribute to the death of, or perhaps deliberately murder, Mozart? One could argue that Salieri set him on the path to destruction, and others could claim that he was on the path from the very beginning. The film provides evidence for both sides, allowing for some post-viewing debate.

The art direction, cinematography, sound design, lighting and costuming are all excellent, in part because no one element overshadows the other. This helps to create a seamless production where we aren't distracted by showy costumes or flourishes of the camera. We are drawn in to the world the characters populate, and we are immersed in this tale of one of the bitterest rivalries in fictional history.

I say 'fictional history' because, in reality, Salieri and Mozart got along just fine. Sure, they competed for the odd job every once in a while, but they definitely respected each other's work, and even collaborated on a piece or two. But...that doesn't make for a good story. The lack of poisons, affairs, and mysterious masked men result in a rather dull tale. So, even though it is riddled with historical inaccuracies, and should never be used as a reference for a report on either composer's lives, the film is a remarkable piece of narrative filmmaking, and most certainly deserves your attention.

Next week on ReFocus: “Forrest Gump”

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