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AMADEUS. Directed by Milos Forman; written by Peter Shaffer; produced by Saul Zaentz for Orion. Starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce. Rated PG.


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Amadeus is wonderful. It's rich, intelligent, funny and tragic. It runs 2 1/2 hours, you should be warned. But that extra hour doesn't weigh it down at all. And don't be put off by the subject matter, either. I know little about the music of Mozart, and, frankly, I don't care for opera. But I loved Amadeus.

The title refers to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, of course. (And it means "beloved of God," worth keeping in mind as you watch.) But the real central character is his fellow musician Antonio Salieri, a capable enough court composer to Emperor Joseph II. Certainly nothing to compare to Mozart, however, a situation which tortures Salieri.

Mozart the man is arrogant, vulgar and tactless. To Salieri it is supremely unfair that he, so proper and chaste, is incapable of making the kind of heavenly music this oaf turns out so effortlessly. So Salieri determines to bring about Mozart's downfall.

The contradictory emotions of envy and disgust at war within Salieri make for a fascinating character study. And his unfolding plot makes a good suspense story.

But interesting as the characters, events and even philosophical implications are, Amadeus is as good as it is because of its music. And the way the music is used to tell the story of Mozart's decline and fall. There really are two storylines in Amadeus, one verbal, one musical. By the time Mozart's body is dumped into its pauper's grave, to the powerful sounds of his Requiem, it's obvious that the emotional power of this great music has accented every point the movie's had to make.

Salieri is a quite unlikable fellow, made sympathetic nonetheless by Abraham's excellent performance. And Hulce, who might be recognized from Animal House, (of all movies) blends the two aspects of Mozart—musically sublime and socially ridiculous—into a believable person. [Hindsight note: Abraham dazzles at first viewing; I've seen this movie many times since 1984, though, and subsequently Hulce's seems to be the superior performance, much more subtle and intriguing.]

The moviemakers are meticulous in their attention to period detail. (You even get used to those incredible wigs.) But they are the first to disclaim complete biographical accuracy. (Although Mozart did like dirty jokes and could play the piano upside down with his hands crossed.) Writer Shaffer calls it a "fantasia" on Mozart, not a documentary.

But it's more illuminating and entertaining this way. Amadeus is a movie whose style, characters and story place it above the crowd. If you dislike opera even more than I do, just grit your teeth during those parts of the movie. It's still well worth seeing.

NOTE: this movie made my 10-best list for 1984.

October 24, 1984

PDF of the published review.

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