May 23, 2011

Movies Revisited: Amadeus (1984)

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Rivalries are a spectator's delight. Two sides, with a history of jealousy, hatred, and dominance vacillating back and forth over a period of years like imbalanced weights on a scale. Or boxers in a marathon bout, exchanging blows, round for round with no end in sight. It makes for great drama. In sports: the Yankees and the Red Sox, Ali and Frazier, the Celtics and the Lakers. In music: The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, Biggie and Tupac, Mozart and Salieri.

Yes, that's right. Mozart and Salieri. Arguably one of the most epic music rivalries in all of history, told in wonderful fashion in Milos Forman's Oscar winning Amadeus (MRQE Metric: 89) from 1984.

The film starts out in a psychiatric ward, where an old, unrecognized composer named Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) is held for attempting suicide. When a priest comes to take his confession, Salieri begins to delve into his past, and his relationship with the famed composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Told in flashbacks, Salieri recounts his life in 18th century Vienna, and his lifelong passion for music that began in his childhood, and blossomed in adulthood when he became court composer to King Joseph II. It is then that he has his first encounter with Mozart (Tom Hulce). Salieri describes his awe for Mozart's ability.

But he is soon shocked to find such divine talent in the body of a childish, irreverent man-with a shrill, mocking laugh that only adds to his teeming outrage. He believes Mozart's talent to be a message from God, laughing at Salieri's mediocrity. And after Mozart humiliates Salieri at a welcoming ceremony, the Italian composer decides he must overcome Mozart's overshadowing genius by whatever method necessary.

And so, when Mozart encounters some financial troubles (like all great artists) Salieri uses his leverage in his relationship with the king to capitalize on Mozart's work. When Mozart grows desperate, Salieri disguises himself in mask and cloak, and visits Mozart at late hours in the night, exchanging money for Mozart's music. Mozart works obsessively, in fear of this ominous figure, and becomes bed-ridden from his exhaustion.

The film ends with Mozart dying while dictating music to Salieri for his final, unfinished masterpiece Requiem. In present time, the old Salieri confides to the priest that he believes Mozart's death was God's final act of punishment for him. And the film ends with Mozart's giddy laughter.

Amadeus won eight Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing for Peter Shaffer. The film wasn't a huge success in its first run. And the historical accuracy of the picture certainly came into question. Shaffer took great creative liberties in writing Amadeus, which he adapted from his own stage play. The historical record of Amadeus' relationship with Salieri is very vague and can only be interpreted from letter correspondence. But, fact or fiction, this is a unique story of jealousy, betrayal, and the evasive, if not random origins of brilliance. And it holds up well nearly thirty years after its release

Concerning the rivalry. Well, it's sort of a given that Mozart was the better composer. But, as the film depicts, Mozart lacked Salieri's political reputation. And according to Wikipedia, Mozart once referred to the Italian composer's actions as "a trick of Salieri's." Perhaps Mozart was paranoid by his competitor. Or, perhaps these are simply mountains made out of molehills.

But what are most rivalries other than labels cast on two figures by opposing camps for added dramatic allure. It certainly makes for great stories. Amadeus is currently streaming on Netflix. Check it out.

Enjoy the trailer:

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