Combustible Celluloid
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With: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Jeffrey Jones, Elizabeth Berridge, Simon Callow, Roy Dotrice, Christine Ebersole, Charles Kay, Kenny Baker, Lisabeth Bartlett, Barbara Bryne, Martin Cavina, Roderick Cook, Milan Demjanenko
Written by: Peter Shaffer, adapted from his play
Directed by: Milos Forman
MPAA Rating: R for brief nudity
Running Time: 180
Date: 06/09/1984

Amadeus (1984)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Dances With Wolfgang

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Amadeus on DVD

In 1984, Milos Forman's Amadeus won eight Oscars out of eleven nominations, and so we have a tendency to overrate it. After all, no movie can stand up to the scrutiny that comes with a Best Picture award. And indeed, my favorite film of 1984, Once Upon a Time in America, was not even nominated. But I would easily rank Amadeus as one of the ten best films of that year, and that's nothing to sneeze at.

I recently had the opportunity to view two of director Milos Forman's early, seminal works on outstanding new DVDs from the Criterion Collection. Loves of a Blonde (1966) and The Fireman's Ball (1967) were made during the highly productive Czechoslovakian New Wave.

In those early films, Forman displayed an intelligent sense of play backed with a sinister understanding of dark politics and darker emotions, especially in his best film, The Fireman's Ball. That mood carries nicely into Amadeus.

This new "director's cut" contains refurbished, dazzling digital sound that makes you fall in love with Mozart all over again. It also contains restored footage, notably of a topless scene with Mozart's wife and a music lesson gone wrong, with Mozart trying to teach a young girl in a room full of restless dogs.

Written by Peter Shaffer (now a "Sir"), adapted from his own play, Amadeus focuses not so much on the famous Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), but on the forgotten court composer of Vienna, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). It's through his eyes that we begin to understand the glory of Mozart's talent. Salieri is blessed with enough skill and longing to recognize the extent of Mozart's God-given gift, but also to recognize that he himself does not -- and can never -- measure up.

But somehow, even with this desperate, universal tragedy, Forman manages to convey a giddy lightness throughout the film. It moves through its three hours with grace, bringing with it a joyous appreciation of music and brilliantly sharing that joy with the audience.

The film begins as an aged Salieri -- living in an asylum straight out of Marat/Sade -- describes his troubles to a visiting priest. On top of everything, Salieri has lived long enough to hear Mozart's music grow ever stronger and his own music fade away completely. Salieri blames God for choosing a squealing nincompoop as his voice.

When Salieri first meets the foul-mouthed young beast (with an abrasive, high-pitched laugh) Mozart inadvertently makes a monkey out of him by playing and then re-arranging Salieri's humble welcome march ("the rest is just the same, isn't it?" he says as he plays on).

When Mozart marries a controlling, lower-class woman named Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge) his fortunes begin to pinwheel out of control. He begins drinking and feverishly writes more and more music in an attempt to pay the bills.

The noble Salieri maintains his post as court composer, and the Emperor (Jeffrey Jones, in a wonderful performance), continues to adore his mediocre music. Salieri uses his power to very subtly keep Mozart from landing any decent jobs. Surprisingly, the big money in Vienna comes not from concerts or writing music, but from teaching.

Salieri attempts to seduce Constanze for the privilege of naming Mozart as court instructor. But -- in a newly restored scene -- we see that Salieri simply can't go through with it, and this sheds new light on the later scenes between Constanze and Salieri.

To drive the final nail in the coffin, Salieri poses as Mozart's dead father and hires him to write a death requiem. As Mozart writes, he grows paler and weaker. In a final masterstroke, Salieri himself brings Mozart home after he's passed out during a performance. The two musicians together work to finish the requiem, barking complicated musical terms back and forth to one another in a feverish volley. But God has one more curveball to throw at Salieri and kills Mozart just before they can finish.

Forman makes this dark section work by keeping it moving at the same jaunty pace as the earlier, lighter scenes and by keeping both Salieri and Mozart within arm's reach of each other. Neither is portrayed as a snarling villain. Indeed, they're so much alike that neither man can relate to anyone else so closely, which is why that climactic scene is so powerful.

As for the music -- such a central part of Amadeus -- Forman manages to present it in such a way that we can really hear it. We can tell when we're listening to a Mozart masterpiece or a mediocre Salieri. The music itself is chosen so carefully, and the images that accompany it are so perfect that even the most musically uneducated will get it.

DVD Details: Disc one contains the three-hour director's cut of the film, the Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround soundtracks, an audio commentary with director Milos Forman and writer Peter, cast and crew information, an awards list, optional French audio track, and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Disc two contains a one-hour documentary, "The Making of Amadeus," and a widescreen theatrical trailer.

Buy the Amadeus Soundtrack on DVD.

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