Watching Ebert: Amadeus (Forman, 1984)

This is the next in a series of reviews of films Roger Ebert has given four stars to between the years of 1967 and 2007, inspired by his book, Roger Ebert’s Four Star Reviews.

When trying to recommend this film to my friends, I can see their eyes deaden before me. After all, this is a period piece, full of frilly costumes and powdered wigs, about the life and times of a classical composer and Mozart, the man who drove him mad. It brings to mind the stuffy stilted costume dramas we are all familiar with, with its dry dialogue and mannered behavior. However, Amadeus is as far from mannered as films get. It manages to maintain an air of reverence to the genre while also rebelling against the mannerisms and emotional restraint that characterize similar films. It is passionate, moving, hysterically funny, and deserves to be placed alongside Goodfellas and Lawrence of Arabia as one of the greatest biopics ever created.

We begin with Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), ranting and raving that he killed Mozart. A doctor at the sanitorium asks him if he truly did what he claims, and the film is told in flashback from there. He was raised as a man of God but always longed to be able to pursue a life in music. When his father dies suddenly, he views it as a miracle that will enable him to follow his dream career. He is named court composer in Vienna, where he first encounters Mozart (Tom Hulce), a lewd disrespectful young upstart who hears a piece Salieri labored over and improves it so casually, it seems an afterthought. After suffering for years at watching this young man with so much more talent than him, he loses faith in God and his own sanity, and comes up with a way to exploit Mozart’s inner demons in hopes of killing him.

As directed by Milos Forman, Mozart is played with a twinge of punk-rocker self-righteousness, from the reckless behavior to the hints of pink lacing his wig in a sea of white powdered heads. Tom Hulce plays him with the charm of a popular teenager, peppering his enjoyment of life with an outrageous laugh, without losing sight of the mercurial swings in temperament that come with holding the burden of such an incredible talent. It’s no surprise that Forman was the man to helm this project—before he made Amadeus, he made Hair and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, both rebellious films in their own right, preferring a free-form lifestyle to conforming to the whims of society. Yet they are also about he struggles of a misunderstood individual to maintain his ability to live his life the way he sees fit, which mirrors Salieri’s struggle (later Forman films like The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man in the Moon deal with this as well). He keeps the dialogue reverent without becoming anachronistically contemporary, and he keeps the tempo upbeat while letting the film remain framed in a dignified powdered-wig period film visual style.

At the end of it all, however, this movie belongs to F. Murray Abraham. Salieri is possibly one of the best characters in all of cinema, a perfect manifestation of a regular man with big dreams who realizes before our eyes that he will never be the best, no matter how hard he works. The scene in which Salieri reads Mozart’s music off the page and understands that he is in the presence of brilliance almost certainly won Abraham the Oscar—he is unspeakably upset, but Abraham doesn’t play the anguish. He plays the joy that overwhelms that anguish, the joy that God blessed him with the opportunity to witness such genius in the palm of his hands. It’s such a complex emotion to play, and Abraham lets the battle between those two feelings permeate through his entire performance. I have trouble recalling too many better performances that I’ve ever seen—one of the best roles of all time, contained in one of the best biopics of all time. I urge anyone reading this who hasn’t yet seen this film to stop what you’re doing and rent it. Yes, even if you hate frilly costumes and powdered wigs.


Ebert says: “Amadeus is a magnificent film, full and tender and funny and charming—and in the end, sad and angry, too, because in the character of Salieri it have given us a way to understand not only greatness, but our own lack of it.”

Read the rest here.

~ by russellhainline on May 26, 2009.

5 Responses to “Watching Ebert: Amadeus (Forman, 1984)”

  1. I really enjoyed this movie.

  2. Excellent blog! Very interesting aspects. I will regularly read it. Also e-mailed on rss.

  3. Excellent blog! Very interesting themes. I will allways read it. Also subsribed on rss.

  4. Great blog! Very interesting aspects. I will regularly read it. May i post your backlink on my page?

  5. Great movie,divine music and amazing perfomances.A rare masterpiece

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