Friday, June 10, 2011

Why Historical Accuracy Doesn't Matter: Amadeus - Which Should Be Called "Salieri" - Is Still Perfect!

The Good: Plot, Character, Acting, Effects (costumes and music), DVD bonus features
The Bad: None that I can find!
The Basics: A masterful story of art and obsession, Amadeus is a deeply human story that explores what happens when an artist finds himself in the company of true greatness and cracks.

Once upon a time, I was in Middle School and I saw Amadeus in a music class and I remembered so few details about the film that seeing "The Director's Cut" now was like seeing it again for the first time. What was new and added to the film, I could not speak to given that it was almost twenty years since I last saw the film. In the intervening years, I have heard about how great the film is (one of my favorite people in the world calls Amadeus her favorite film of all time) and I have had opportunities to appreciate the acting quality of several members of the cast. Before one of the convention companies I was doing business with went bust, I had actually been quite excited about the chance to meet F. Murray Abraham - in addition to playing the "villain" in Amadeus, he played the villain in Star Trek: Insurrection (reviewed here!) and I've been disappointed to not have had the opportunity to meet him. That sense of disappointment was renewed after seeing Amadeus because Abraham was so brilliant in the film, so deserving of every accolade the work won him.

Amadeus is an extraordinary film about art and politics and unbridled genius running into the ambitions of a lesser artist. There is a deeply human conflict that is drawn out with brilliant and well-defined characters. The conflict of artist and society is expressed in such clear terms and in such a simply delightful way that even those who have neither been artistically inclined, nor appreciated the fine arts, will appreciate the struggle artistic geniuses go through in creating their works. The director's cut is three hours long and there is not a bad minute in the film.

First, the brilliance of Amadeus is that it is grand and complicated. Told from a disturbed narrator, the film mirrors the conflict of artist and society with a personal conflict between Salieri and Mozart. Artistic genius is celebrated over the forces of commerce and the film explores the nature of conflict when art is believed to be divinely inspired. Milos Forman's film is extraordinary in every way. Much is made of the historical inaccuracies within Amadeus, but when one considers the conceit that the story is being told from the point of view of an insane Salieri (which was not necessarily historically accurate) any problems with historical accuracy go out the window; Amadeus is entertaining and it works fine within the confines of historical fiction.

Following a suicide attempt, Austrian Court Composer Salieri finds himself confessing to a priest. Salieri begins to tell the story of his career, living in competition with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Blessed from a young age with the ability to make fabulous music, Mozart makes Salieri jealous. While Salieri has the ear of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, the court rules and political advisors of the Emperor keep art censored. Mozart bursts on the scene, flirting with Constanze and performing audacious music. So, while Salieri is retained as court composer, Mozart is given commissions from the Emperor, and his fame with the masses quickly grows.

But just as the public hears something in the works of Mozart that astonishes and pleases them, Salieri hears in Mozart's works the genius the artist possesses. Laughing and making a spectacle of his way through Austrian society, Mozart is tormented by his father, but begins producing incredible works which garner the attention of noble and commoner alike. Obsessed with Mozart and understanding and undermining him - largely because he feels that god has forsaken him by giving him talent enough to recognize Mozart's genius but not emulate or improve upon it - Salieri begins spying on the rival composer and plotting his death!

Amadeus is a character-driven story which illustrates the conflict between artist and society in a way that makes the period piece seem instantly relevant even now. Mozart is portrayed as a ridiculous buffoon who oscillates between being a clown and a rebel against society who is absolutely brilliant within his craft. He laughs uncomfortably, flirts ridiculously, yet writes music so flawless in its initial conception that he does not need to revise. Director Milos Forman illustrates the relationship between artist and art incredibly, making it clear both Mozart and Salieri have music so ingrained in their very spirits that each time they encounter written music, the soundtrack plays what they are reading. The effect is instantly clear - especially when Salieri gets his hands on a Mozart manuscript - that each of these composers "hears" music on the page.

Moreover, the love story between Mozart and Constanze does not seem gratuitous. In fact, the relationship between Mozart and Constanze highlights the loneliness Salieri lives with. That Mozart is a family man makes Salieri seem more alone and enhances the depth of his obsession with ruining Mozart. Salieri then becomes metaphorically a figure of Death while Mozart and his little family embody life, even if it is a tormented one. But throughout all of the conflicts, the film is eminently watchable with the characters being portrayed so vibrantly that the three main characters - Mozart, Constanze, and Salieri - are each deeply empathetic. And when Salieri's obsession turns into a cruel manipulation of Mozart following the death of Mozart's father, it gives Constanze a chance to become Mozart's lifeline which makes her seem even more necessary.

Throughout, Salieri plays himself off as Mozart's ally to the composer while working to undermine him in the Austrian court and the conspiratorial aspect of the film plays well. And unlike many films that I have seen lately based on theatrical works, Amadeus explores the process of making theater productions (operas) without ever seeming like it is simply a stage play put on screen. The film is consistently entertaining and visually and musically stunning.

But having great characters would fall short if it weren't for the quality of the acting. Jeffrey Jones gives an outstanding supporting performance as the cool Emperor Joseph II and Elizabeth Berridge performs astonishingly well as Constanze. When Berridge first appears on screen as a strumpet Mozart is chasing, it is easy to dismiss her as just a cute face. But as the film goes on, Berridge grows in screen presence (not just lines) and her energy and expressions become vital amid the disintegration of Mozart. Berridge is plausible as the human connection needed to revitalize Mozart in her portrayal of Constanze.

Underrated in his role of Mozart is Tom Hulce. Hulce is absolutely great in the role because he has a mastery of both halves of Mozart's character. Hulce has great comedic presence, from his oversized smile to his high-pitched laugh to the way he falls over with an ease that is entirely ridiculous. But at the moments when Mozart is supposed to be inspired (in ways Salieri interprets as divinely inspired) Hulce has a clarity to his eyes and a strength to his body language that makes him seem like he actually is a genius in whose body music lives and reigns. He speaks through the musical technobabble with incredible clarity as if he understands all of the terms and he sells the role completely.

But is it F. Murray Abraham who rightfully earns the accolades for best actor in the film. Abraham is a master of every single emotion he plays as Salieri, from frustrated to determined, penitent to jealous and he plays it with such a cool demeanor throughout that the viewer knows they are watching the same character in every scene and they believe in his reality and his struggle. This is, quite simply, one of the most consistent and emotionally diverse performances of all time and anyone who wants to see just what an actor can do would do well to study this.

On DVD, Amadeus comes with a full-length commentary track from the director and the playwright upon which Amadeus is based. The commentary track is informative and engaging, offering the viewer a huge amount of information not otherwise available. This is impressive when one considers the director's cut comes with a second disc which is a full-length documentary on the making of the film, including the music of the film. Fans of the movie are also treated to the original theatrical trailer and text lists of the major performer's credits.

In short, Amadeus stands as a timeless story which explores the creation of music with a sweeping tale of obsession and very human torment (both from within and imposed from without). One of the best films of all time and one of the times the Academy got its Best Picture win right.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project here! Please check it out!]

For other works in which Vincent Schiavelli appears, please check out my reviews of:
The X-Files - "Humbug"
Batman Returns
Star Trek: The Next Generation - "The Arsenal Of Freedom"


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

| | |

No comments:

Post a Comment