The Big Rewatch: Amadeus (1984)

Rewatching and reviewing screen classics and old favourites

Amadeus poster with a large black silhouette of a man reaching arms towards the viewer over an image of city rooftops.

With lockdowns in place across the globe, cinemas are shutting and new releases are being delayed. Most of us are spending a lot more time indoors, and we’re certainly in need of a few silver linings. As long as we have food and internet we’ll be ok, right? The long days working from home can make it awfully tempting to spend a few extra hours (/days) in front of the TV. But perhaps we should see this not as a chance to binge our way through the same old TV shows, but an opportunity to revisit some old favourites and modern classics of the silver screen? I’m starting a new series, The Big Rewatch, going back to the films I love to have an excuse to see again and again. Across time and genres, these are movies that merit a rewatch, and what better time to do so than now? To get us started, an arguably controversial choice, Amadeus.

Amadeus, Miloš Forman, 1984

From Czech-American director Miloš Forman, of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest fame, Amadeus tells the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Adapted by Peter Shaffer from his own play of the same name, it takes a very loose approach to historical and biographical accuracy, but cannot fail to draw you in with its gripping narrative and well-drawn characters. Our protagonists are Mozart himself, and Antonio Salieri, a would-be rival to Mozart, and the film follows their parallel lives through the world of 18th century composing.

Negotiating spoilt aristocrats and highly-strung singers, the two composers take very different trajectories. Italian Salieri is presented as mediocre but politically skillful, while Mozart is a born genius with the social graces of a particularly silly teenage boy. Salieri’s sensibilities are insulted by the vulgarity Mozart often displays, so he makes it his personal mission to thwart Mozart’s progress at every turn. What follows is a melodramatic but gripping story, played out against Mozart’s own musical creations.

It is an exploration of a person bombarded with evidence that their belief system is wrong

It cannot be stressed enough that Amadeus does not present an accurate version of Mozart’s biography. There is little evidence of a rivalry between him and Salieri, and the events of his life, particularly towards its end, are all exaggerated for dramatic effect. But one questions how much this really matters. Amadeus is true to Mozart’s life in the same way that The Tudors is historically accurate. That’s not really what it’s about. It is an exploration of a person bombarded with evidence that their belief system is wrong. Whose basic tenets are publicly and repeatedly called into question. F Murray Abraham won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his depiction of Salieri, and he admirably presents us with a character whose emotions get the better of his reason.

Tom Hulce playing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, conducting an orchestra, wearing a pink wig.
Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Salieri is not allowed to outshine Mozart, even in this fictional narrative. Tom Hulce’s Mozart displays conviction, depth, strength and vulnerability. Hulce was also nominated for Best Actor, but at least in this Salieri was granted a victory. The reaction to Hulce’s portrayal, of both audience and critics, oddly mirrors that of Salieri. He is seen as a caricature, ridiculous, and even an insult to Mozart’s memory. But anyone who has read Mozart’s letters will recognise him in Hulce’s retelling. He had a truly filthy sense of humour, frequently telling poop and fart jokes, and with some rather unflattering things to say about people he both liked and disliked. But there is also a sense of the deep affection and childish adoration for his friends and family, which Hulce also captures. A sincere love, including of his father (who is cast almost as a villain in the film), is reflected in his writing throughout his life, and shines through in Hulce’s performance. It may seem outlandish, but one of the few accurate aspects of Amadeus is its depiction of Mozart as a silly joker. And apparently his laugh really was that annoying.

The costumes, while also not historically accurate, are suitably lavish, and worthily present the personalities of their wearers. The film is shot in Prague (then still in the USSR), giving it a wonderful atmosphere. Mozart’s Don Giovanni premiered at the Estates Theatre in Prague, so it is fitting that it should provide the setting for the story of his life.

The Estates Theatre, Prage, with Neoclassical architecture, green walls, and cream columns with gold capitals.

Where the film, as usual and expected, falls down is in its portrayal of women, let alone people of colour, who do not feature in speaking roles. Mozart’s wife Constanze is the woman with the most screen time, but she is mainly used as a device to straightforwardly advance the plot, or to deliver simple exposition. Having said that, Elizabeth Berridge manages to impart real charm and pathos to the role, and is utterly convincing in her loving yet troubled relationship with her ‘Wolfy’.

We fall, hook, line and sinker for the idea that Mozart’s music embodies an objective ideal, perfection, even when its subject matter is as ridiculous as giant snakes and magic flutes.

Amadeus both knocks down and sets back up the idea of the great man, the divinely gifted genius. Salieri’s life begins to fall apart when he realises that Mozart disproves this ideal, which he has been striving to achieve. And yet, for all his shortcomings, Mozart is presented as a genius, magically conjuring melodies out of the air. His ‘greatest hits’ litter the film, showing us over and over again that the works he created are almost divine: sublime pieces that raise us from our normal lives towards something greater. We are horrified along with Mozart when it is suggested that his opera has ‘too many notes’. We fall, hook, line and sinker for the idea that Mozart’s music embodies an objective ideal, perfection, even when its subject matter is as ridiculous as giant snakes and magic flutes.

Ultimately the film does little to dispel the ideas that Salieri grapples with, but teaches us that perfection can be found in unlikely places, and that even when it is apparent, it is not immune to the machinations of politics. Mozart, for all his talent and imagination, which seem undeniable to the viewer, is brought low by Salieri’s political prowess.

You’d be hard put to find a better drama, so when you’re next feeling emotionally ready for something meaty, turn your volume up and immerse yourself in this intense tale of cunning, deception and delight.

What do you think of Amadeus? Does it bother you that it’s not historically accurate? Which films are you going to be giving a rewatch, and which do you think I should try next?

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