"Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that's all." -- Emperor Joseph II
Director: Milos Foreman
Writer: Peter Shaffer
Principal cast members:
For most people born after 1945, rock stars are the gods of fame and their names are synonymous with troubled lives, creative brilliance, and tragic ends. It is not a particularly new phenomenon, though it is more common in the Baby Boom era. Nonetheless, you can find rock stars in other eras of history and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart certainly fits the archetype to a T. Peter Shaffer's inventive stage play about the life of this troubled, maturity-challenged genius was wonderfully adapted to the screen by Milos Foreman and the perfect setting that was Prague at the end of the Cold War years.
Shaffer's story of Mozat's life is told by a man who never really existed. The narrator and primary point of view character is the famous composer Antonio Salieri. There certainly was an Antonio Salieri who is widely regarded as one of the premiere composers of the 18th century. Salieri was the Kapellmeister, or chief of music-making, in the court of Emperor Joseph II of Austria. There is no doubt a certain amount of rivalry existed between any court composers of that era, but at the same time, there is clear evidence that Salieri was an admirer and friend to Mozart far more than a jealous rival.
All that inconvenient truth aside, because Mozart died young and of somewhat vague causes, the notion of him being poisoned by a jealous rival took hold in the popular conscience, much like conspiracy theories of our time. When you mix in nationalistic jealousy, it was very easy to arouse suspicions of a rivalry between native Austrian Mozart and the Italian outsider, Salieri. So over the centuries, the rumor that Salieri hated Mozart and poisoned him has taken on a life of its own. It is hard to blame a playwright for jumping on that notion and creating a little drama with a version of Salieri that never really was.
Our film opens with the elderly Salieri attempting to kill himself. The young priest sent to hear his confession finds himself listening to a bitter old man who swings between supreme admiration for a man so talented, he considers it to be music touched by God and a vicious jealousy so vitriolic it causes madness. The movie unfolds as Salieri reminisces over his life as a court musician. He recounts his excitement and anxiousness at the opportunity to meet the famous Mozart and then his bitter disappointment at discovering that this godly talent, this divine gift for music, is housed in a vulgar, foul-mouthed little man with the manners and behavior of a spoiled brat.
F. Murray Abraham gives us a Salieri that should not have become a murderer. We see in him a composer who should have had a pleasant and successful life within his world. Clearly, it is the flaws in Mozart's character that have turned Salieri into this jealous killer. The beauty of the play's storytelling and Abraham's spot-on depiction is that we can easily identify with Salieri's feelings. He clearly loves music and loves the music that Mozart makes. He exults that God has reached down and touched this man with such supreme talent. And we can understand his disgust when we see that talent often wasted in vulgarity and sheer silliness. Salieri is right: it just isn't fair that a composer who has given God so much as Salieri has, is being eclipsed by a man like this.
The vulgar little man is portrayed by Tom Hulce in an Oscar-nominated performance. This Mozart is mercurial, witty, but a spoiled brat for all that. His talent is supreme and his creative energy is beyond measure and yet he wastes it creating vaudeville and performing parlor tricks. Hulce brilliantly shows us this man who outshines all other composers for raw skill and ability, yet is forever insecure, doubtful that he is being properly appreciated and rewarded. We see the fears of his father and the expectations that were obviously pressed on him in youth.
Supporting Mozart is a loving wife played by Elizabeth Berridge. Berridge's Constanze is loving and playful and she embraces the child within him willingly. At the same time, she knows what talent he has and she wants him to get the rewards he deserves for it. So even as she shares his childlike delight in fun and games, Constanze is not afraid to fight for her man and what she sees as his proper due. She also grows frustrated with his seeming unwillingness to be responsible and plan for the future. It is easy to picture Berridge's Constanze as an 18th Century groupie who gets her man, only to struggle with the never-ending party that is his life.
Jeffrey Jones is superb as Emperor Joseph II. History records that this Holy Roman Emperor was regarded as the 'Musical Emperor' for his appreciation of the arts and his own considerable musical talent. Jones gives us a Joseph who simply wants to enjoy his music and doesn't have time for the ambitious rivalries and petulant egos of rock stars.
It is an interesting directorial decision to eschew accents by the principal actors. Hulce, Abraham, Berridge, and Jones are all American and no attempt is made by them to sound either Austrian or Italian. While it can seem jarring and somewhat out of place at first, in time it seems a matter of simple convenience.
The film is filled with the finest classical music of the era, most of it Mozart's. In addition, it is filmed against the backdrop of Prague which retains a marvelous old world charm and added tremendously to the atmosphere of the exterior scenes. Many of the interiors were shot with candlelight which beautifully warms the tone of the opera performances and vaudeville scenes. Without question, the look and sound of Foreman's version of Vienna is absolutely charming and captivating.
The movie won Best Director for Foreman and Best Picture for producer Saul Zaentz. It also won Oscars for Shaffer's screenplay and for the costumes, makeup, and set direction. It was nominated for cinematography and editing. The two principal actors, Hulce and Abraham, were both nominated for Best Actor. On the first viewing, Hulce gets most of your attention for his antics and his wonderfully mercurial composer. But on second viewing, it is easy to see why F. Murray Abraham won the Oscar over him.
It is Salieri, after all, who is our narrator and our guide in this telling of Mozart's life. We see this vulgar and supremely talented man through his eyes which is what allows us to both exalt Mozart and be disgusted by him. Salieri as a point of view character gives us a rich understanding of both the character of Mozart and the setting in which he thrives and sometimes fails. It is up to Abraham to enable us to see the honest beauty and flaws within both characters and that is ultimately one of the best acting performances you are likely to see.
It takes one hell of an actor to play a madman and murderer with such clear intelligence and sympathy and Abraham deserves all the credit in the world for pulling it off. As for Hulce, he is only slightly less impressive as the magnet and the center of the film. Mozart changed his name from Johanes Chrysostom Wolfgangus Theophilus to Wolfgang Amadeus. Amadeus is a translation of Theophilus which means 'Beloved of God.' It is a testament to the passion of Salieri that he would recognize the God-given talent of a man he was driven to murder and a testament to F. Murray Abraham that we can accept such a man as our guide in this look at Mozart's life.
Coolness factor: 7
Overall entertainment: 8