Amadeus (1984)

Author: Dr. Mandar V. Bichu

Year: 1984
Director: Milos Froman
Cast: Tom Hulce, F. Murray Abraham, Elizabeth Berridge

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The mere name evokes an awe-inspiring image of a musical maestro, who mastered all possible classical genres and rose to be one of the finest composers of all time and finally left this world at the young age of thirty-five leaving behind a timeless treasure of symphonies, sonatas and operas. Surely it is a life which is the stuff of legends.

1984 Oscar-winning movie Amadeus tells Mozart’s legend through the eyes of Antonio Salieri, the Chief composer in Vienna’s Royal Court.

The story unfolds in a flashback. Salieri is now a withered old man; a mental asylum inmate who has repeatedly attempted suicide and who keeps blaming himself for killing Mozart. He shares his feelings and experiences about the deceased genius with a priest and what emerges is a fascinating if shocking portrayal.

Salieri describes Mozart’s stint in the Eighteenth century Vienna, a city where he spent his final decade and created his major masterpieces. Like most aficionados of those times, Salieri had waited with bated breath to see the much admired musician, who was now in his twenties and who was coming to Vienna from Salzburg. Salieri had heard countless tales about the man who started as a child prodigy, playing musical instruments at three, composing at five and who had spent his whole childhood touring and performing in various European Royal Courts. But the very first sighting of the man leaves Salieri shocked beyond words. What he sees is a childish, vulgar man with a squeaky laugh and a penchant for wine and women. But as disgusted as is Salieri with Mozart’s persona, he also realizes soon enough that the new entrant in Vienna is an extremely gifted musician, a composer who can write the most complex and most elevating musical compositions within a matter of minutes as if he is taking a dictation directly from God!

Jealous of his musical genius, Salieri subtly starts undermining Mozart’s progress. Of course, Mozart’s own profligate, outlandish ways also play into his hands. So even though the Austrian ruler takes a liking to Mozart’s music, he never offers him an official position. The income from Mozart’s musical concerts is sizable but not enough to provide for his extravagant lifestyle.  Now married to his sweetheart, he tries to stay financially afloat through musical tuitions for aristocrat women. His father’s re-entry into his life brings new challenges. The authoritarian father, who has tutored and mentored Mozart, does not approve of his wife or for that matter of anything that he does. The constant conflicts at home and his declining income start taking heavy toll on Mozart. The father’s death and the wife’s separation then bring further emotional turmoil. His health starts going progressively downhill.

Salieri, who has been slyly plotting this downfall, watches the unfolding of these events intently, still secretly admiring the man’s boundless talent, which has kept churning out musical creations of unmatched brilliance even in these times of decline and fall. The end is near but still there is one more final masterpiece to complete. Fittingly it is ‘Requiem’- a mass for death! Will it be ever completed?

Director Milos Forman and writer Peter Shaffer’s fact-fiction biopic Amadeus brings Mozart’s life and times alive. It does that in a bold, provocative and entertaining manner. It shows Mozart as not an all-conquering superman but as a man full of human frailties and complexes, who is incidentally bestowed with an almost other-worldly artistic genius.

Tom Hulce plays Mozart and does full justice to the portrayal of a boy trapped in a man’s body, who takes his musical talent for granted; who defends his music fearlessly and yet cannot fathom its real value; who loves his wife dearly and yet has no qualms in bedding other women; who ridicules his father in his absence and yet remains constantly in his awe.

Elizabeth Berridge does a superb job, playing Mozart’s wife; a simple, practical woman who does not understand her husband’s music but knows its market worth; who is ready to go to any extent to further his career and who is frustrated by his increasing sense of despondency.

But the best performance is by F. Murray Abraham, who plays Salieri, a fellow musician, who marvels at Mozart’s musical genius and despairs at his own mediocrity; who jealously blocks Mozart’s progress from behind the scene, while posing as his friend and who ultimately disintegrates and destroys the man. The repentance does come afterwards but it is too late!

Amadeus swept the Oscars in 1985, winning eight awards including Best Picture and Best Actor (for F. Murray Abraham). It is a classic worth watching not only for its exquisite music, lavish period feel and overall brilliance; but to understand that divinity and frailty often go hand in hand when it comes to human geniuses! And that the overall mediocrity of the world often succeeds in killing such exceptional talents!

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