Saturday, February 1, 2020

Amadeus Sings a Tune of Haunting Regret Punctuated By Delightfully Wacky Humor

Technically, Amadeus is the story of Amadeus Mozart, one of the most famous composers of all-time. But despite having his first name in the title, Mozart is not the star of Amadeus. Instead, the focus is on a far less well-known person, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). Whereas anyone in 2020 could pick out a Mozart tune just by hearing someone hum a few bars, you'd be hard-pressed to find somebody who'd instantly recognize a Salieri composition. Even in the early 1800s, when Amadeus begins, an elderly Salieri finds that his works have become quite obscure among the general populace.

This is where our story begins, with Salieri, in the last years of his life, resides in a sanatorium after a botched suicide attempt. What weighs so heavily on this man's soul that he would attempt to take his own life? Well, a visiting priest soon hears Salieri tell the tale of his life. Flashing back decades earlier, we learn that Salieri is defined by extreme jealousy of Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce). Dating all the way back to when they were kids, Salieri has carried a burning envy for Mozart that only grew as Mozart's fame and influence blossomed. Such jealousy has even extended to Salieri's theological principles. He used to be a fervently devoted man of God but now Salieri detests the Lord since he believes his diety speaks in beautiful music through the vessel of an impudent child like Mozart rather than a more deserving talent like himself.

It's rare to have a biopic movie about a famous historical figure eschewing having that same figure be the lead of the production. It's even more unorthodox to have that figure filtered through the perspective of somebody who absolutely despises them. You don't see many movies about George Washington focus on a staunchly anti-Washington farmer. Considering how good Amadeus is, though, maybe we should have more biopics in that vein! Telling the story from Salieri's perspective isn't just an admirably unique storytelling move, it also recontextualizes the life of Mozart in a fascinating manner.

We do not get to see this musician as an underdog or a misunderstood genius, rather, through Salieri's eyes, he's more of a wisecracking brat. Introduced in a scene where he hides out in a room making sexually vulgar remarks towards a lady he fancies, this isn't exactly the picture of Mozart you'd' find in your average textbook. You can see why he might get under Salieri's skin but Hulce's performance lends qualities to this version of Mozart that make you understand how and why he was able to push boundaries like he did. When he's explaining to Austrian officials why he's making an opera out of the banned text The Marriage of Figaro, you don't get a sense of arrogance from Mozart's defense far from it.

Instead, you feel this genuine passion for the art of opera and all of its most unique qualities. "In any other form, twenty people talking at once is noise but in opera, it's music!" Hulce's Mozart shouts with such an endearing sense of steadfastness for the medium he loves. Mozart's rowdy side is presented in as unflinching of a manner as his artistic side, which leads to some of the most delightful comical moments of Amadeus. Period piece dramas can sometimes get stuck in a sense of stuffiness but boy does Amadeus ever avoid plunging into that trap. This film is unafraid to embrace comedy, the presence of sex or absurd sights, three elements that help to make Amadeus feel like it's very much an extension of our own frequently wacky world.

The comedy and any other tone explored by Amadeus transpires against radiant production design that perfectly echoes the similarly resplendent visual aesthetic of classic operas. What glimpses we see of Mozart's shows make it clear that they're never short on eye candy and so too does Amadeus make sure to provide viewers with an onslaught of impressively-realized sets and costumes. Of course, having such visual elements be so prominently displayed has extra benefits beyond just being pretty to look. Combining the sets and costumes with on-screen characters who engage in activities like ribald party games helps to heighten the already hysterical sense of comedic juxtaposition in Amadeus.

While the laughs are in hefty supply in Amadeus, perhaps the film's greatest asset is its lingering sense of self-inflicted tragedy. This is, after all, a movie about a man who's spent his whole life toiling away at bitter jealousy over Mozart. Where did that get him? In the end, Mozart ended up in a pauper's grave, just like everybody else, all of that jealousy on the part of Salieri did nothing. F. Murray Abraham's performance in the wraparound segments involving an elderly Salieri beautifully captures this sense of quiet regret, particularly in a closing scene where Salieri declares himself to be the patron saint of mediocrities. Director Miles Forman's outstanding Best Picture winner Amadeus may technically be the story of Amadeus Mozart. But more than that it's a tragedy about a man who learned, all too late, how all-consuming jealousy just leaves one empty more than anything else.

* = Didn't find a spot to organically mention this in the review but the way Amadeus conveys characters like Mozart and Salieri hearing music when reading sheet-music is just perfect, simply perfect in execution.

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