On a production level and as an evocation of a time and place, “Amadeus” is loaded with pleasures, the greatest of which derive from the on location filming in Prague, the most 18th century of all European cities.
With great material and themes to work with, and such top talent involved, film nevertheless arrives as a disappointment. Although Peter Shaffer adapted his own outstanding play for the screen, the stature and power the work possessed onstage have been noticeably diminished, and Milos Forman’s handling is perhaps too naturalistic for what was conceived as a highly stylized piece. Essential drama remains sufficiendy potent to absorb audience interest, and many who never saw it live may be greatly impressed. Strong biz looms in major city firstruns, but length and heavy dose of classical music mute chances for a widescale breakout.
“Amadeus” is Shaffer’s fictionalized account, based on well-informed speculation, of the relationship between Viennese court com-poser Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, during the 10 final years of the latter’s life. A caustic study of the collsion be-tween mediocrity and, genius, of Salieri’s consuming jealousy and his bitterness over God’s unfair distribution of talent, play is based on the provocative premise that the manipulative Salieri may have intentionally caused Mozart’s death in 1791.
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Pic begins with Salieri’s suicide attempt more than 30 years later, and is framed by and narrated through a sort of confession the old man makes to a priest, in which he enunciates his rage at God and bemoans the fact that Mozart has already become deified, while Salieri’s own reputation has become extinct.
Flashing back to 1781, film presents Salieri’s first encounter with the 26-year-old prodigy; Mozart’s coarse, childish way with his bride-to-be; his clownlike appearance before the royal court; Salieri’s placement of a spy, in the form of a maid, in the Mozart household; his furious abandonment of God and his decision to try to destroy Mozart; Mozart’s prodigious creativity in the writing of “The Marriage Of Figaro,” “Don Giovanni” and “The Magic Flute,” and, while literally on his deathbed, his feverish effort to finish his “Requiem Mass.”
Shaffer has drawn Salieri as a character of Mephistophelian proportions, a man who needs to drag Mozart down in order to cope with his awareness of his own shortcomings. Part and parcel of this, however, is the marvelous irony that Salieri, with his erudition and superb musical scholarship, is one of the few who genuinely appreciates the exalted level of Mozart’s accomplishments; Forman repeat-edly shows Salieri discreetly savoring Mozart’s operas from his box, even when he has already gone to great lengths to ensure lackluster official receptions of the works.
Fueling the fire of Salieri’s fury is Mozart’s offensive personality. In opposition to the idealized, romanticized 19th-century view of the composer, Shaffer has written the character as an outlandish vulgarian to whom Salieri constantly refers as an “obscene child” and “the creature.”
While this proved an interesting conceit in the theater, in the film the concentration on this one aspect of Mozart’s character comes off as superficially one-dimensional, an effect emphasized by the fact that the weight of the drama has unfortunately been shifted away from Salieri to Mozart.
As the film progresses into its second half, one increasingly loses sight of Salieri in favor of Mozart’s rantings and ravings. As played by Tom Hulce, Mozart emerges as the John McEnroe of classical music, an immature brat with loads of talent, but with little human dimension.
Elizabeth Berridge as Mozart’s young wife, a lower-class girl clearly beneath her husband’s station, acts on a similar one-note level, and the flat American accents and sloppy diction of both performers sometimes strike discordant notes amid the aristocratic splendor of the film at large. Somehow, Forman ‘s usual wizardry at casting has deserted him on both counts.
By contrast, F. Murray Abraham, an experienced Broadway stage actor, is quietly excellent as Salieri, even if he lacks the stature and authority of Paul Scofield and Ian McKellen, who excelled in the stage role in London and New York, respectively.
Other supporting parts are well filled, and the most striking performance in the entire picture is given by Jeffrey Jones, who makes a supremely elegant and entirely human Emperior Joseph 2d.
Opera buffs will delight in seeing bits of “Don Giovanni” staged in the extraordinary Tyl Theatre, the actual house where Mozart conducted the world premiere of the work some 200 years ago. Other locations, from theaters to castles, palaces, streets and apartments, are all sensational, although Miroslav Ondricek’s cinematography, at least in the print caught, appears overly brown and murky.
Top-flight contributions have been made by production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein, costume designer Theodor Pistek, cho-reographer and opera stager Twyla Tharp and music overseers John Strauss and Neville Marriner. Ample opera excerpts will delight some, but will probably seem excessive to non-aficionados.