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When it’s on: Sunday, 8 July (9.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

I’m not suggesting Amadeus was the first good film I ever watched. That initial viewing was, however, one of those pivotal, ‘growing up’ moments. It absolutely blew me away, captivating me to the extent that, as soon as I could, I rented the video, recorded it off the television, watched and rewatched it at every opportunity. Even now, some years after I last caught it and playing my copy of the Director’s Cut DVD for this piece, I find it to be almost perfect. And again, it returns me to that nostalgic memory of seeing it for the first time and having my eyes opened to the possibilities of cinema. Thinking about it, there are few very genuine times when I have felt this way after watching a film. Normally, I’m entertained and that’s fine, but rarely has a movie left me aching emotionally in the way Amadeus did all those years ago.

For a start, it’s an incredibly entertaining film. A movie poster that proudly displays its status as an Academy Award winner can be a bit of a put off, suggesting some grinding, slow moving drudge intent on lecturing us about the human condition for two hours. No thanks. But Amadeus, whilst it has a message about humanity, sets out from the start to get right into the story, and what a yarn it is. The title might indeed be Wolfgang Mozart’s middle name, but it’s actually the tale of Antonio Salieri, who from humble origins rose to prominence in the court of the Hapsburg Emperor, Joseph II. In reality, Salieri didn’t have a direct role in Mozart’s death, but as he succumbed to a mental breakdown in his later years and was admitted to the General Hospital in Vienna, the rumour began to spread that he blamed himself for the passing of his rival. This led to Alexander Pushkin’s poetic study of envy, Mozart and Salieri, written in 1830, which fed into Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play, Amadeus. A good story is, after all, a good story, and the myth that a jealousy-fuelled Salieri plotted the downfall of Mozart is a juicy one. The suggestion that poison was used was based on the ultimately mysterious causes of Mozart’s death, but this theory is widely considered to be fallacious.

The truth of the matter can be divined from the letters between Mozart and his father, Leopold, in which both men bemoaned the Italian ‘establishment’ at Joseph II’s court that prejudiced against Germans trying to establish themselves within musical circles. Salieri, from the Verona region, had origins that fit. The Salzburg-born Mozart’s didn’t, and no amount of talent could overcome the pomposities of the day.

But the play, and the film, whilst acknowledging this also adds a personal dimension. Salieri, born with a lyrical soul and the yearning for heavenly composition, rises to the role of court composer and has the good fortune to work for ‘the Musical Emperor’, whose patronage of the arts maintains a cabal of Italian musical directors. All seems well, until Mozart’s talents emerge and Salieri, for the first time, encounters real genius. It’s a heartbreaking moment. In the eighteenth century, Salieri blames none other than God for the affliction of being able to appreciate music that appears to have been divinely handed down yet remains incapable of producing it. He sees it as God playing a terrible joke on him, choosing instead for His angelic voice an uncouth, vulgar little Austrian who possesses a love of the high life and women. Salieri, having dedicated his life to one of chastity in exchange for the gift, is utterly outraged. Worse still, more than anyone else he recognises Mozart’s compositions as those of a complete master. He’s astounded to learn that his rival can transfer his thoughts as complete compositions onto paper, and believes the words of God are being channelled through Mozart. Whilst hopelessly in love with every opera and work the Austrian produces, Salieri becomes consumed with envy and spite, and over the course of the narrative resolves to destroy him.

The film weaves its yarn in flashback, from the sanatorium where Salieri spends his dotage and relates his tale to a priest awaiting his confession. We’re introduced to the circumstances of Salieri’s life at court, his witnessing of Mozart’s rise, and his mounting bile over the other man’s abilities. An initial source of his consternation comes with his secret affections for the beautiful opera singer he’s tutoring, only to find her starring in Mozart’s first opera after clearly having slept with him in order to get the part. Salieri quickly learns the truth – Mozart may indeed have none of the mannered, courtly ways cultivated by serious musical types, but people flock to him nonetheless, attracted to his raw charisma and talent. It’s the genius Salieri has always longed for and now knows he will never possess.

In committing such a dark story to celluloid, Amadeus contains a broad degree of humour and, certainly for its first half, is almost a comedy. Salieri, who might very well have simply enjoyed his high status rather than given in to envy, is amused and cynical over Mozart’s progress, whilst much mileage is gained from the whirlwind mind and dirty jokes Wolfgang brings to the Emperor Joseph’s stuffy court. The scene in which a completely guileless Mozart tears apart the workmanlike welcome march Salieri has written for him is uncomfortable in its honesty, yet undeniably hilarious.

Much of this comes from the inspired set of players. The play, once it reached Broadway, attracted an all-star theatrical cast, including Ian McKellen, Tim Curry and Jane Seymour in the lead roles. Yet the film eschewed big names, undergoing a lengthy process to cast purely on who felt right in their parts. More importantly, the principals needed to be American and had to keep their accents in the picture. Whilst this takes a little getting used to within a medium that prefers English accents for any movie set in the past, it’s a surprisingly effective decision, and indeed why not? No one in eighteenth century Vienna spoke with RADA-trained voices, and the lack of them here removes the film’s stage origins to create a working, lived in Austria.

Word on who would be awarded the starring roles in Amadeus spread as the picture seemed, from the start, to be something special. In the ‘Making of’ documentary on my DVD set, I noticed Mick Jagger’s name on the list of subjects for casting, but fortunately that’s where it remained. Tom Hulce, best known back then for his appearance in National Lampoon’s Animal House, was handed the part of Mozart. Nobody’s idea of a classical leading man, nor given the role because of his ability at playing tortured heroes (think Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind), Hulce is perfect because he physically fits the part, looks quite average and is absolutely believable as the dirty stop out party animal who fills every other moment at work. Later in the film, when his father has died and Mozart is racked with emotional guilt, he conveys brilliantly the conflict between someone who’s clearly glad to be rid of Leopold whilst blaming himself. Again, not looking to cast a beauty, Elizabeth Berridge took the role of Constanze Mozart, playing her as lazy yet essentially good hearted and completely devoted.

Jeffrey Jones is delightful as the blank faced, buffoonish Emperor Joseph, but the real triumph is F Murray Abraham as Salieri. Little known beforehand beyond theatrical circles, he walks away with the picture, utterly compelling as the mediocrity who’s both forced and drawn to witness a genius at work and play and sees Mozart’s very existence as a joke on himself. Most important is the audience’s identification with Salieri; after all, by the sheer force of logic we are more likely to be ordinary than great in our chosen fields, and whilst most of us might ultimately content ourselves with that reality, it’s addictive watching a man who simply won’t accept his lot in life.

Salieri’s tragedy is twofold. First, he’s hardly done badly for himself before Mozart’s arrival and his status is largely unthreatened by him. Mozart even attempts to endear himself to Salieri, which ought to satisfy him and at least appeal to his vanity. Second, while he schemes to send Mozart to an early grave by working him to death, appearing irregularly in the fancy dress costume of his dead father to add a chilling edge to his commission of a requiem mass, it becomes clear that he has, at best, an exacerbating influence on the composer’s exhaustion. Mozart’s own lifestyle, working habits and lack of rest whilst obviously suffering some kind of fever are what do for him. Salieri fails in even his attempts at murder.

The Amadeus screenplay was written over a torturous, collaborative series of weeks between Shaffer and director, Milos Forman. The pair clearly weren’t natural writing partners, but the results were brilliant, a script crammed with period detail, bawdy humour, irony and tragedy. The production was fortunate enough to film on location in Prague, then part of Communist Czechoslovakia and rarely seen in the west. Thanks to its Soviet controls and good fortune over the years, ‘Old Prague’ looked as though it had been supplanted straight from the eighteenth century. The lack of advertising present in a Communist city, few electrical cables and indeed scant signs of modern life meant outdoor scenes could virtually be filmed without any trick photography or location dressing. A bonus came in the opera scenes that were shot inside Prague’s Count Nostitz Theatre, which just happened to be the very place where Don Giovanni had debuted two centuries earlier.

Costumes, set design  (those wonderful, creaking wooden floors!) and a wealth of powdered wigs add to the film’s charm and authenticity. And then there’s the music, which needs no introduction here and includes works from both Salieri and Mozart. Whilst this serves to do no more than emphasise the impassable gulf in quality, it has since had the nice side effect of bringing Salieri back to public attention. Regular productions of his operas are run in a theatre named after him in his home town of Legnano, whilst excerpts from his music crop up from time to time in feature films, most notably Iron Man.

Lastly, there’s the truth behind the film. By the intellectual standards of the time, Salieri may very well have seen Mozart’s musical gifts as a blessing from God, though the clear evidence of genius must in reality have been augmented by hours and hours of hard work and learning. In a film about Mozart that would almost certainly have been less entertaining, it’s quite possible to imagine Leopold Mozart as a Joe Jackson of his time, pushing and cajoling his son relentlessly to the top with all the emotional fallout that such an upbringing implies.

Then there’s the film’s shot of Mozart’s corpse being dumped into a mass, communal grave, the consequence of his impoverished lifestyle within a Vienna incapable of appreciating the genius that only achieved real fame and acclaim in retrospect. In reality, whilst his means were modest, Mozart was buried like any other commoner whose family could afford a respectful funeral, and it suited his widow to squeeze more money from the royal purse by claiming poverty in attempting to have his work played. Constanze needn’t have worried. It didn’t take long after Mozart’s death for his reputation to rise to dizzying heights, which must have added further layers of consternation to Salieri, who had another 34 years to go and must have already witnessed the waning of his own star over the same period.

Amadeus: *****

P.S. The version screened on BBC4 is the Director’s Cut, which now seems to be the definitive edition of Amadeus. Personally, I can take or leave the extra 20 minutes of footage; none of it adds anything of great significance, beyond fleshing out Salieri’s longing for even a soupçon of Mozart’s talent and adding a lecherous edge to his character. It also includes a brief nude scene involving the rather magnificently bosomed Berridge that was omitted from the original cut in order to preserve its PG rating.

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