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Amadeus
Categories: Movies, Writings

This is not so much a review of the movie as just some unstructured thoughts on it.

Movie PosterDirector: Milos Forman.
Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce.

Adapted from Peter Schaffer’s Broadway hit of the same name, Amadeus is a partially fictionalized account of the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Told from the perspective of his rival, Salieri, the film has the rivalry between the two as its central conflict. The film chronicles (in flashback) how Salieri came in contact with, got jealous of, and then tried to destroy Mozart.

Director Milos Forman stages much of the drama in a very simplistic fashion, without much overt flair, employing classical and subtle camera movements to convey meaning. One stand-out sequence shows the streets of Prague (doubling for Vienna) with snow gently falling, as Salieri (dressed in a pitch black Death’s Mask costume), hurries to Mozart’s house. Expertly edited, the juxtaposition and beauty of images in this sequence manages to evoke dread and acts as a good foreshadowing device. This imagery is repeated later in the film, with one tragic twist.

A big issue I had with the film was its run time and how it felt rather weirdly boxed in, as though it were taking place in matchbox-land. With a 3 hour plus run time, Amadeus tends to drag, especially in the umpteen opera sequences. Though the music is superb (how dare it not be, after all it is Mozart’s music), the opera sequences tend to get repetitive.

Also, the movie feels very obviously adapted from a stage play. Stage plays, by their very nature, have to cut down on locations, and try and cram everything into the boundaries of the stage. Movies, on the other hand, can get as expansive as they like with their locations and staging. Amadeus, however, feels like a filmed stage play. It’s almost as though if the camera were to pan too much to either side, one would get to see the wings. Again, this is not a problem limited to Amadeus, but one shared by all movies adapted from stage plays.

This feeling of a filmed stage play extends into the performances of the actors too. Gone is the restraint one expects in film, and in comes the over-the-top performances which are a necessity on stage. Tom Hulce is particularly over-the-top in the beginning.

Shaffer’s screenplay is pretty effective. The way he manages to fuse music, lust and religion and eke out the characters of Mozart and Salieri is pretty ingenious. The dialogue drips with a self-seriousness, something which is not quite complemented by the general tone of much of the movie (which is rather jokey and frivolous). Only towards the end does the tone of the dialogue and the movie match, and only then does the movie take on a deeper significance.

As mentioned earlier, most of the performances are rather over-the-top. Mozart is drawn too crudely and acted out too brashly in the beginning. Surely some restraint would have resulted in a much more tolerable character. However, as the drama progresses, Hulce eases in to the role, and the rough edges in his performance are polished. Abraham, playing Salieri, is much more layered and nuanced. As the protagonist, he naturally has a much better written role. The conniving (yet slightly unintentionally comic) nature of Salieri and Abraham’s countenance and body language seem to be a perfect match for each other.

The period setting of the film is not quite brought out by the costume and props department. Most of the sets (particularly the palace sets) look shoddy, as though hit by a serious budget crunch. The king’s costumes lack the splendour and polish one expects from them.

The music, comprising solely of Mozart’s music, lends a scale rarely matched by the images on screen. Yes, I am biased towards Mozart’s music, but the sheer power of it is actually unmatched by much of the movie. Again, as is the case with many other elements, the true power of the music is tapped only towards the end. The juxtaposition of images at the very end, with Mozart’s Requiem sound tracking them, is very symbolic and powerful.

Amadeus begs the question, “what exactly is a genius?” While one might immediately think of a subservient being, totally dedicated (to the point of ignoring everything else) to his/her craft, Amadeus paints Mozart as a very different sort of genius. Mozart knows he’s a prodigy and is not afraid of flaunting it or taking it for granted. He is a philanderer, and he is a genius. He loves his wine and women as much as he loves his music. These rather contrasting definitions of genius are the point of tussle between Salieri (who subscribes to the former definition) and Mozart. Amadeus repeatedly makes a case for genius being a person “touched by God”.

In conclusion, while the movie has many nice touches (like when Salieri is shown almost hitting orgasm when he reads Mozart’s music for the first time), it has it problems (chief amongst them being the rather stagey feel). The end result, while not pathetic, is also not what could have been. The story is brilliant, and the dramatic arc picks up towards the end, but Forman’s simplistic direction fails to sufficiently draw the juice out from the material.

  • If the high point of a movie on Mozart is the music (as you seem to imply), it isn’t a good movie at all.

    • it’s not a bad movie per se. just that the opening two thirds of it dont really gel all that well with the last third. the last third is really good, though.

  • Arjun

    The “over the top” acting was the need of the hour. As his acting in the first scene itself gave a gist of the infantile and nasty character i.e “MOZART”.  

    • there’s a difference between over-the-top acting for film, and for theatre. sadly, the acting on display was of the theatrical variety. that’s what i have a problem with.

  • Vivek

    Might just add this to my list of things to watch when I am out of things to do, because am a bit of a Mozart fan myself, though not knowledgeable at all.