Amadeus (1984) | Review by Pauline Kael

Milos Forman trudges through the movie as if every step were a major contribution to art, and he keeps the audience hooked the same way people were hooked by Hollywood's big, obvious, biographical epics.
Amadeus (1984)

by Pauline Kael

The story of a genius who isn’t appreciated and dies in poverty has the same basic appeal whether its subject is Stephen Foster or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. That’s not the kind of story the director Milos Forman and the writer Peter Shaffer set out to tell in Amadeus, but it’s essentially what they wound up with, and that appeal is probably what saves the movie from being a disaster. Amadeus has a very complicated surface—there’s a steady stream of rhetoric about high-flown things. But after a while the rhetoric cancels itself out, and what we see is the unworldly Mozart (Tom Hulce) caught in a web of intrigue by his enemy, the unctuous Hapsburg court composer Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), and worked to death, in 1791, at the age of thirty-five. The story is told to a priest (and to us) many years later, by the mad, suicidal old Salieri, and there is the suggestion that what we’re seeing is his delusion, but the weight of the production, which is reminiscent of big biographical movies such as The Life of Emile Zola and A Song to Remember, asserts its own kind of authority.

Peter Shaffer writes eloquent confrontations between two adversarial figures: in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Pizarro and the Inca king; in Equus, the sterile psychiatrist Dr. Dysart and the teen-age patient with his psychotic head full of Dionysian ecstasies and mysteries; and, here, the minor composer Salieri and the incomparable Mozart. This conflict was formulated in the brief, ironic play Mozart and Salieri that Pushkin wrote in 1830 (which Rimsky-Korsakov used as the basis for an opera); the play takes only ten pages in the D. M. Thomas translation in The Bronze Horseman. Pushkin has Salieri soliloquize:

I will say it
To myself—I am envious. I
Envy. O heaven! where is justice,
When the sacred gift, when immortal
Genius, is sent not to reward
Self-sacrifice, burning love, toil,
Ardour, supplications, but illumines
The head of a madcap, an idle rake?
O Mozart, Mozart!

And when Mozart comes to see him, Salieri cries out, “My God, Mozart, you are not worthy of yourself.” He poisons Mozart’s wine, and Mozart, offering the toast “Let’s drink to the true bond linking us two sons of harmony,” swigs it down. Shaffer elaborated on this small conceit in his stage play Amadeus—probably choosing this name because it can be construed to mean “beloved of God”—and he has further elaborated on it in the screenplay he wrote in consultation with Forman. Peter Shaffer can give clichés a glitter, and the polarities that are his specialty may sound convincingly clever at the beginning of his plays, but when he starts to add elements the polarities are contradicted, and the conflicts become highly abstruse and drift off into the murk. (He is the twin of the playwright Anthony Sleuth Shaffer—which isn’t really parenthetical.)

What is Amadeus about? Salieri, who has worked hard at his music, been a servile courtier, and achieved fame and high position, is envious of Mozart’s incredible talent. You might expect him to ask himself whether he’d want Mozart’s talent if Mozart’s money troubles went with it, but this movie isn’t about such mundane matters. Shaffer has Salieri declaring war on Heaven for gypping him, and determined to ruin Mozart because God’s voice is speaking through him. Shaffer turns Pushkin’s metaphor into a whole megillah. At first, it’s quite funny when the slimy-smooth Salieri complains that his exertions—his always doing the proper thing, studying, going to church—haven’t been rewarded. He’s the least humble of Christians—he seems to expect God to give him exact value for every prayer he has ever delivered. (He’s like a kid saying to Mommy, “I was always a good boy and ate my spinach and did my homework, but you love my brother more than you love me—and he uses dirty words and chases girls.”) Salieri thinks that because he suffers so much he should be a genius.

The movie, though, by showing you Mozart as a rubber-faced grinning buffoon with a randy turn of mind, as if that were all there was to him, begins to lend credence to Salieri’s mad notion that Mozart doesn’t have to do a thing—that his music is a no-strings-attached, pure gift from God. The tone of many of the incidents and details is quite opaque. Are Mozart’s bushy white wigs (and the sometimes faintly pinkish ones) a shaky attempt at historical fidelity, or is it Shaffer’s or Forman’s thought that the young audience will identify with Mozart if he’s made to look like Harpo Marx as a rock star? (The effect was also used in the stage version.) Many of the scenes appear to support Salieri in his belief that Mozart’s prankish obscenities and his boastfulness are proof that he’s unworthy of his artistic gift. Ribald cloacal jokes were an accepted part of ordinary people’s conversation in the Vienna of the day, but in the movie Mozart is the only person who seems to enjoy talking dirty. And the movie doesn’t make it apparent that his scatological games and his carousing were quick vacations from his work, or that when he gleefully tells the emperor that he shaped a duet into a trio, and the trio into a quartet, and so on, it’s not boastful one-upmanship. It’s because of his delight in shaping playful structures—the delight that is at the heart of his music.

There’s nothing but confusion at the heart of the movie: it’s a semi-realistic musical biography of Mozart built on a madman’s justification for envy. Forman has something working for him here, though: this aspect of the film ties in with the very old popular beliefs that artists are bawdy and undisciplined, and that genius comes from God—that it’s just handed to some people. And later on, when Hulce finally gets out of his fright wigs, and Mozart, ill and desperate, stays up nights working with total concentration on his music, Forman switches to that other popular mode—the dedicated artist who lives only for his art, and, sweating feverishly, dies for it. (Mozart’s suffering redeems him.) The corniness in Amadeus is that the view of artistic accomplishment which Salieri spouts—that if art comes without plodding it must be a gift from above—is at least half shared by the writer and the director. They don’t appear to register that the whole notion of dictation from God is an insult to Mozart.

Forman’s insensitivity to what Mozart might have been like is so flagrant that for the first hour or so you almost think you’re being kidded—“Wolfie” Mozart and his wife, Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge), are like teen-agers in some mid-American Dogpatch. And the use of Mozart’s music to illustrate snippets of his life and to provide the film with comic (and gothic) punctuation is offensive. (Composing the overture to The Magic Flute, Wolfie dances a clumsy jig and thumbs his nose at the framed portrait of his stern, disapproving father on the wall.) Each time you hear the music, it invalidates the movie’s bumpkin Mozart, with his hideous, high-pitched whinny-giggle. And if you’ve read Mozart’s letters you know this twerp couldn’t have written them. But Forman’s crudeness is a form of showmanship—not one I respect but one I’m forced to acknowledge. He trudges through the movie as if every step were a major contribution to art, and he keeps the audience hooked the same way people were hooked by Hollywood’s big, obvious, biographical epics. Some members of the audience (and of the press) seem to be awed as well.

There are some real aberrations in this movie, such as a shot of Salieri in a cuckoo’s nest where the passageways are lined with barechested loonies chained to the walls who seem to be giving a performance of Marat/Sade. There’s also a long deathbed sequence—the muzziest part of the movie—with Mozart, who looks as if he’d been painted light green, innocently and pathetically dictating his Requiem to Salieri, who’s plotting to steal the music. And it’s definitely one plot too many. The episode totally fuddles the fratricidal issues; Salieri seems about to echo the boy’s cry to his God in Equus—“Make us one person.” This whole section appears to have leaped out of the end of Ken Russell’s film on Delius, where it made more sense, since Delius was blind.

Despite the uses to which Mozart’s music is put, the musical passages are the best thing about the movie, and that’s allied with Twyla Tharp’s staging of the dances and the opera excerpts. Most of the picture—especially the scenes in Mozart’s chambers and at the court of Emperor Joseph II—is static, in the manner of opulent costume epics of the past. And the court scenes are harshly bright—probably Forman and the cinematographer, Miroslav Miroslav Ondříček, want us to see the pomp coldly and realistically. So each time there’s a musical sequence it’s like a reprieve—Twyla Tharp brings the picture some lightness and wit. Her staging of the operas (with sets by Josef Svoboda) shows her great flair for theatrical artifice, and she also stages a parody-pastiche of Don Giovanni that Mozart attends (and loves). It’s a featherweight low jinks by Bosch—a whirling tableau, with actors playing puppets, a horse that comes riding through paper walls, a soprano who comes crashing through the set, and a dove that flies out of a paper horse’s rear end.

As written for the screen, the big, showy role of Salieri seems to be an impossible one (he has too many schemes), and, the way the material is laid out, F. Murray Abraham doesn’t get to shape his performance. It never comes together. But Abraham’s intensity has a theatrical charge to it in the glances that tell us what’s going on under Salieri’s polite smiles. And some of the scenes he’s in are just about irresistible—arriving at the court in Vienna, Mozart thoughtlessly improves on the march that Salieri has composed to welcome him, and Salieri listens, his face falling apart. Abraham is a wizard at eager, manic, full-of-life roles, and he gives Salieri a cartoon animal’s obsession with Mozart—he’s Wile E. Coyote. He’s also (in his later scenes) a reptile, with an obscene vitality in his crazy eyes. Tom Hulce’s Mozart is jarring in the first half—I found it hard even to look at him. He was less unbearable toward the end—possibly because he was confined to bed and couldn’t toddle around anymore. Forman probably got the performance he wanted: he seems to like amateurish, telegraphic acting, just as he likes to load the aged Salieri with too much froggy, rotting-old-man makeup. (Abraham’s triumph is that a vile kind of humanity gleams through.) A word should also be said for Jeffrey Jones, who plays Emperor Joseph II: maybe because of his imperial rank, he’s the only member of the cast who gets to shine by giving a restrained performance. (He does amusingly polished, vapid line readings—the emperor is a boob.) And John Tomlinson, who sings the role of the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, has such power he can give you chills. Downtown Prague does just fine as eighteenth-century Vienna. It was fine as Dresden in Slaughterhouse-Five and as Hanover in Saraband and in many other roles, but I can’t remember its ever being cast in a good movie.

The New Yorker, October 29, 1984


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