Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Amadeus

Usually, it's the sign of unfunny comic desperation for a movie to include a fart joke, but Amadeus, the 1984 winner of eight Academy Awards (including best picture, actor, director, and adapted screenplay), manages to transform its moment of flatulence into one of its most dramatic and iconic scenes.

The imp-like Mozart (Tom Hulce) entertains revelers at a masquerade with his effortless impersonations of other famous composers on the harpsichord. One guest says to play Salieri, the Italian composer in the court of Austria's Emperor Joseph. Calling that a challenge, Mozart cruelly mocks his contemporary's music and personality, punctuating the performance with a blast of gas, not realizing the man who suggested Salieri is none other than Sallieri himself (F. Murray Abraham in an Oscar-winning role). Oh, how the rage and humiliation burns beneath the mask.

Directed by Czech emigre Milos Forman (who had directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and would later direct Man on the Moon), Amadeus is the story of Salieri's jealously that he, a devout man of faith whose sole ambition in life was to compose music to God, must witness the natural, effortless genius coming from Mozart, a vulgar, childish creature of women and drink. Salieri might be the court composer, but he recognizes the mediocrity of his own work and how sublime Mozart's is. It is, as Salieri, almost as Mozart "takes diction from God."That God would chose this odious man-child for His instrument enrages Salieri, and he takes steps to silence this divine instrument.

Amadeus balances a number of different tones masterfully. There are elements of tragedy to both Salieri - a man cursed to know how bad he is at the art he devoted his life to - and Mozart - the gifted genius doomed to die young and impoverished. Salieri is stodgy, humorless and eventually blasphemous, but one can't help but feel sorry for him because he was forever denied what he wanted. But he definitely the villain the piece, using his position in the emperor's court to stymie Mozart's career and eventually plot his death. Meanwhile, Mozart is reminiscent of so many modern-day rock stars whose excesses and indulgences destroy them. He's either composing brilliant music or getting sucked into an endless debauchery of drinking and partying until his body can take no more.

Yet, Amadeus is often quite funny. Mozart is a giggling child in a man's body, and Hulce is hilariously over-the-top (in an Oscar-nominated performance). His antics among the stuckup elite of Vienna are outrageous and carefree. Everywhere he goes, he's the center of attention, and I guarantee, anyone who sees the movie will spend weeks afterward mimicking his distinctive, high-pitch giggle. Salieri, in particular, is made the fool, so while it's possible to feel bad for him, it's just as easy to laugh at his misfortune.

The film is also an effective period piece with stunning recreations of both life in Vienna at the time (late 18th century) and Mozart's operas. Everything looks and feels right, but it should be noted the film takes liberties with historical facts. Salieri, if he were alive today, could probably sue for character assassination (the fact his work is still performed today invalidates any claims he was a hack composer).

Amadeus is a brilliant exploration of an artist and his work. This not a tedious biopic; it has an energy and life of its own. Mozart's music is used fantastically to elevate the drama and passions at play. Even if you're not a fan of Classical Music when you sit down to watch the film, you will feel lifted and moved by Mozart's talent, still evident 200+ years later.

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