In Vienna, the music capital of Europe in the mid-18th century, Antonio Salieri reigned supreme. Despite a humble background, he had become the court composer for the Emperor of Austria. His music was greeted with the most extravagant praise and he was lavished with honors. Yet nowadays, no one remembers Salieri. Instead, Mozart is acclaimed as the genius of music from that period. What if Salieri, alone among his contemporaries, had foreseen his own eclipse? How would he have felt and what would he have done? Might he actually have murdered Mozart, as disreputable rumor suggested?
This is an interesting enough subject for a work, but Peter Shaffer had an additional twist. What if Salieri had earlier made a bargain with God, a good life in return for acclaim as a composer? How would Salieri have felt to see his bargain twisted, to understand that, popularity or no, he was no more than a passing fashion, while God had given Mozart the gift of genius? How would Salieri have felt when he realized that this divine gift had not only been denied him, but had been given not to a saint, but to a childish, vulgar man with few redeeming features?
The unfairness of God is the subject of Amadeus, in its incarnations as a play and as a film. Normally, we are shown the Devil as the tricky bargainer, ready to swindle you over the misplacement of a word. Here God takes that role, an infinitely more disturbing prospect. What if we can bargain with God, and what if he is really trying to cheat us? I find it's premise so interesting that I could not help but be disappointed with the failures of the play. Shaffer and Milos Forman, the film's director, have substantially reworked the script, but Amadeus still fails to take full advantage of the good idea at the core. The problems are different, but are still present.
In the play, Shaffer failed to show the full irony of the juxtaposition of Mozart's genius and vulgarity. Forman has solved this problem, but only at the cost of letting the work's premise slip through his fingers. Shaffer failed to paint Mozart convincingly. Forman forgets that this is really Salieri's story, not Mozart's. Two thirds of the way through the film, Forman shifts gears into a fairly standard struggling artist biography, and the film never really recovers. A final attempt to mutate the portrait of Salieri from a man angry at God to a bumbling mediocrity who cannot even succeed at revenge fails completely. We are no longer presented with Salieri in dubious victory over God, but with Salieri mumbling irrelevancies about mediocrity. The theme disappears completely.
In the absence of a strong center, one must get the satisfaction one can from the remaining elements. Fortunately, there is a lot of good stuff crammed around the edges. As is his wont, Forman has cast the play with relatively unknown performers. They are largely excellent. F. Murray Abraham does a fine job as Salieri, both old and young. I can't help but wonder, though, what the film would have been like with Ian McKellan or Paul Scofield, both of whom won great acclaim in the part on stage. Tom Hulce, best known previously for his role in Animal House, eventually succeeds in convincing us of the contradictions of Amadeus's portrait of Mozart. There are a few rather conventional performances from the supporting cast, but most of them do quite well and one or two of them are brilliant.
The photography is beautiful, and the costumes and art design ravishing. Amadeus was filmed mostly in Prague, which still preserves many buildings from the 18th century. The fabulous theaters and palaces add immeasurably to the film's impact. Shaffer's script, while a failure in deepest meanings, is witty and agreeable. The score is one of the finest ever written, not surprising since it is almost entirely Mozart's own works. Amadeus is a film to be seen in the best theater possible, with a large screen to render its visual beauties, and a Dolby stereo system to render the aural ones. (If I needed any evidence of Rex Reed's utter lack of critical judgement and taste, I got it from his contention that there was too much of Mozart's music in the film.)
Despite its failures, I enjoyed Amadeus very much. It's a bit long, but never dull, and Milos Forman is either too good or not good enough a director to really botch it up. Had I not already been terribly disappointed by the play, though, I think I would have been much less satisfied with the film. Forman and Shaffer solved a few of the play's problems, but only at the cost of introducing new ones. Amadeus is an interesting film, well worth seeing, but not a triumph, and it represents the probably final failure of Shaffer to make this story work.
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