Amadeus movie poster

Through the overlush production and the underlush direction (by Milos Forman), you can still see the makings of a potent historical fiction: potent enough, that is, to stir up curiosity about how much of it is true and to put down protests about how much of it isn't. The rivalry between the traditionalist court composer Antonio Salieri and the free-lance innovator Mozart -- a one-sided rivalry, really, with Salieri driven by envy of talent, and revulsion at personal temperament, into the most melodramatic sort of chicanery -- has almost as universal an application as author Peter Shaffer means it to have: mediocrity is everywhere, and its best hope to escape detection is to stamp out anything better. But the particulars of this case tend, as particulars will, to obscure the application; and though most people by definition should have an easier time identifying with Salieri, the dramatic sympathy piles up all the other way. "Chastity, industry, and humility" — the bartering items Salieri is ready to offer to God in exchange for musical immortality — do not sound anywhere near as much fun as the bouts of partygoing that seem to take up the bulk of Mozart's time, in between jotting down those masterpieces that come to his head fully formed. The notion of "genius" as some sort of genetic lottery prize (rather than as that no-fun definition of Carlyle's, the transcendent capacity for taking pains) will help to make Mozart a hero for our time, if only to provide a handy excuse for packing it up whenever work bogs down. (Nothing pushes the conflict further toward oversimplification than the portrayal of Mozart, by Tom Hulce, as a sort of Mickey Rooney circa 1939, complete with barnyard laugh.) And it will be easy to forget that Salieri, for all his obliging concessions of his own mediocrity and of the absolute genius of his rival, is at least as far above the general run as Mozart is above him. With F. Murray Abraham, Elizabeth Berridge, and Jeffrey Jones. 1984.

Duncan Shepherd

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