Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Nine

amadeus

#9 — Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)
Based on the available evidence, it’s mightily difficult to portray the creation of great art on film, especially those pinnacles of expression that can be defined as “fine art.” The process of turning inspiration into moving manifestations of such usually winds up seeming wan and empty. Even when there’s actual, canonical works to draw from, drawing the line from a dramatization of intellectual toil to a finished piece is often burdened by a veneer of phoniness. Even when the art of filmmaking is addressed, a topic that is theoretically near to the heart of creators speaking at a pace of twenty-four frames per second, it’s usually better served by cynical take-downs than warm-hearted celebrations. Among the many accomplishments of Milos Forman’s Amadeus, perhaps the most striking is the way it makes the great art it depicts comes fully, vibrantly to life.

Adapted from Peter Shaffer from his own stage play, Amadeus posits a fractious relationship between eighteenth century composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his comparatively overlooked contemporary Antonio Salieri. According to most classical music scholars, the details presented by Shaffer go beyond conjecture to be pure fiction, but this is a marvelous, atypical case of the potential damage of that sort of docudrama sleight of hand becoming utterly insignificant in the face of more universal truths that the storytelling reveals. The film is ultimately about the savage broil of human emotion and all of the contradictions that are twined through a life. Tom Hulce is charged with playing Mozart as simultaneously a fool and a genius, a paradox he pulls off with aplomb, essentially serving as the wildly spinning compass for the whole film. Greatness doesn’t need to be couched in a sedate, serious form. It can emanate from a loose, terrifically playful spirit.

It’s that seeming paradox that fuels the rage and jealously of Salieri, played with astonishing care by F. Murray Abraham in a performance that justifiably earned him a Best Actor Oscar. It is through his acting that the film illuminates the ways in which immense talent in others often inspires a tumultuous mix of envy and admiration, which can, in turn, evolve into a sense of personal betrayal. Salieri approaches his art with rigor and seriousness, and can’t come to terms with its summary dismissal when compared against the efforts of the cackling wunderkind who seemingly crafts shattering, unconventional masterworks as easily as he runs a finger through the heaped frosting on a decadent cake.

While Forman revels in the visual splendor afforded him by making a period piece that is, by its very nature, set in some of the most splendorous locales of the era, he never makes the intensely personal stories at the heart of the film secondary to the set dressing and costume design. Additionally, he makes the film feel contemporary without inserting incongruous modern elements or sensibilities (such as trying to hard to impose twentieth century psychological theories upon the characters or finding prescient theories about life within their interactions). The film suffers from none of the stiffness that often makes period films feel like dusty museum pieces instead of fully alive works. Forman has an intrinsic understanding that the language and garments may have changed over time, but the basic human drives unify the drastically different time frames. These aren’t distant historical figures, but are instead living, feeling people trying to overcome the challenges life lays before them.

Naturally, one of the key components of the film, the thing that undergirds all of its intricacies, is the music of Mozart, so vital that it practically becomes another character. Freshly performed for the film by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under the baton of Sir Neville Marriner, the pieces become the coursing blood of the movie, informing and subtly reshaping everything happening onscreen. And there may be no greater moments than those that depict the original creation of that music, especially when Salieri becomes the unlikely assistant to a weakened Mozart. Forman, Shaffer, Hulce and Abraham come together in a splendid dramaturgical symphony, creating great art out of the depiction of the creation of great art.