Film Reviews

Rock Me, Again

Ah, jealousy. Scourge of the spirit and seed of countless wicked plots, the green-eyed beast guarantees gripping drama. Celebrated British playwright Sir Peter Shaffer (Equus) seems to have grasped this concept in reorchestrating the intertwined lives of 18th-century composers Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Adapting his hit London and Broadway play to the screen, in collaboration with producer Saul Zaentz (crafty keeper of the film rights to Tolkien's Rings trilogy) and director Milos Forman (Loves of a Blonde, Hair), Shaffer transformed fact into fantasia, maestros into metaphors. The resulting 1984 film deservedly garnered popular and critical acclaim, and now we're treated to the gluteally challenging but otherwise rewarding three hours of Amadeus: Director's Cut.

Equally rapturous for the ear and eye -- thank conductor Sir Neville Marriner, choreographer Twyla Tharp, designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein and cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek -- Forman's take on Amadeus is as impressive as ever. It's also not too discernibly altered -- an added musical segment here, some expanded scenes there -- and it still immerses the viewer in no mere costume drama, but a captivating time, place and state of mind. The story opens in Vienna, circa 1823, where former court composer Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) is discovered in a ghastly suicide attempt by his servants (Vincent Schiavelli and Philip Lenkowsky). Whisked through the cold night streets, the aged musician is lodged in an infirmary full of loonies, echoing Zaentz and Forman's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. It is here, to a young hospital chaplain called Father Vogler (Richard Frank), that Salieri recounts -- resentfully at first, but with increasing passion -- the inspiration and dementia he experienced in the company of his idol and adversary, Mozart.

With the narrator's voice thus established, the story plays out in explosively opulent flashbacks, revealing the child prodigy Mozart (Miroslav Sekera) being traipsed about Europe as a "performing monkey" by his stern father, Leopold (Roy Dotrice). Meanwhile, young Salieri (Martin Cavani) is simply a humble Italian boy with high hopes ("I was still playing childish games while he was playing for kings and emperors, even the pope in Rome"). In 1781, when he's finally been nominated court composer to Austrian Emperor Joseph II (a superbly wry Jeffrey Jones), Salieri discovers -- to his horror -- that a vulgar little 26-year-old is in fact the one and only Mozart (Tom Hulce). The floodgates are opened for a lifetime of the aforementioned jealousy, plus meticulously concealed loathing, plus religious self-persecution. All the good stuff.

One of the finest qualities of Amadeus is that it reminds us of those rare occasions when an Oscar sweep is actually merited (it claimed eight, including those for best picture, director and screenplay). The Academy Awards of late seem like little more than a marketing tool for disoriented-dork movies such as Rain Man, Forrest Gump, American Beauty, Gladiator and, finally, the directorially solid but narratively unremarkable A Beautiful Mind. If you're hankering for a film about a brilliant man with behavioral problems, revisiting Amadeus will prove more revealing than the mediocre thematic retreads shoveled down our throats since its release.

The performances alone will sustain the film for a long time to come. Although Abraham won the Oscar for best actor -- Salieri is, natch, a disoriented dork -- his strong work is nonetheless limited to two clanging notes: misery and revenge. As time has passed, the incredible work of Hulce as Mozart has become more apparent, as it's a bigger challenge to convey precocious arrogance and doomed naïveté with any degree of sympathy. In terrific supporting roles are Elizabeth Berridge as Mozart's childlike but supportive wife, Constanze, and Christine Ebersole as the diva Katerina Cavalieri, with the latter's soaring soprano supplied by Suzanne Murphy.

Seeing Amadeus again also points up its stunning prescience of the pop world of the 1980s and early '90s, as prodigious boy-men such as Prince and Michael Jackson seemed increasingly deranged and Kurt Cobain's specific genius ended in his untimely death. (Note to pop stars: If you ever encounter your own personal Salieri, don't marry her!) We can also thank '80s musician Falco, rest his soul, for offering up his historically accurate appraisal of Mozart to parallel Shaffer's script. Wedged between composer epics such as Ken Russell's lascivious Lisztomania (1975) and Bernard Rose's surly Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved (1994), Amadeus fits perfectly, depicting the outrageous opulence of both its period and time of production, revealed for a new generation's illumination.

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Gregory Weinkauf