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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Amadeus

The film world lost a giant last week with the death of Milos Forman. I have seen almost all of Forman's English-language films, but I haven't seen any of them recently, nor have I seen his Czech films, so I hope to do so in the coming weeks. You can find reviews of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Goya's Ghosts (which turned out to be his last film) on this site.

I turn to Amadeus, Forman's second Oscar-winner, from 1984. I hadn't seen it since it came out, and I viewed the director's cut, which includes about twenty extra minutes of material. I don't know if I've changed or if the film's changes mattered, because I liked it a lot more on this viewing. Though three hours long, it flew by in a whirl of color, emotion, and of course, music.

Based on Peter Shaffer's play, Amadeus tells the story of Mozart, but through the eyes of another composer, Antonio Salieri, who was court composer to the Emperor of Austria and thought himself a very big cheese. But when he hears the work of Mozart he realizes he's mediocre compared to him. To further torture him, Mozart turns out to be a vulgar, infantile man, given to fart jokes and a hyena laugh. Salieri, a pious man, questions God--how can you put such great talent in such a man?

The film is told in flashback, with Salieri as an old man living in an institution, giving a confession to a priest. The film does not answer the question as to whether Salieri really did kill Mozart--he talks about it, but when Mozart grows sick with a fatal illness he actually helps him compose his Requiem, in a scene that is thrilling--Mozart hearing the score in his head, and Salieri transcribing it.

Amadeus won eight Oscars, including the design awards--costumes and production design--which it richly deserved. I love that the period wasn't far off from the 1960s for elaborate and flamboyant costumes. Forman won best director, and F. Murray Abraham, an unknown actor who had been in a Fruit of the Loom commercial, won Best Actor as Salieri. After an eclectic search which included David Bowie and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tom Hulce, best known for his role in Animal House, got the role of Mozart and was terrific. It's a shame that both leads couldn't have tied for the honor.

I don't know what was different from the original film and the director's cut, as it has been 33 years since I saw the original, but I do know one thing--this version allows us to see Elizabeth Berridge's breasts (she plays Mozart's wife, and Salieri has degraded her into exchanging her body for his help in getting Mozart a position). I suspect that and some extended music scenes are the difference.

What is great about the movie is, with all the fanfare, the music, the costumes, the old-age makeup on Abraham, the central theme rings so true--what if you were a mediocrity, and you had enough information to know that you were a mediocrity? Thus is Salieri's dilemma, which he carries with him to his death.

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