Amadeus has all the stuff of a modern best Picture shoo-in: epic sweep, history writ large, sumptuous period design (including ruffled costumes), grand performances, and grander music. And indeed, Milos Forman's film took home eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But don't hold those against it, Oscar skeptics: Amadeus is a witty and highly imaginative historical fiction, well adapted by screenwriter Peter Shaffer from his own hit play.
Framed as the story of 18th century composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, in a brilliant, Oscar-winning performance), Amadeus begins with a suicidal Salieri placed in a Viennese mental hospital. There, the old man confesses at length his sins of envy, focused on the bright light of musical rival Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce). Salieri's role as court composer for Emperor Joseph of Austria (Jeffrey Jones), "the musical king," becomes threatened by the upstart Mozart. As remembered by Salieri, Mozart was a genius whose beautiful music flowed freely through a conduit straight from God, but whose childish vulgarity was embodied in a dizzy laugh and topped by a punk-rock-pink wig. Determining to share his own torment as a struggling artist with the blithely talented (and sexual) Mozart, Salieri becomes Iago to Mozart's Othello, purring destructive counsel and undermining his mentee at every opportunity.
In telling Salieri's story, the film of Amadeus also recounts some of Mozart's well-known troubles: his difficulty securing work and subsequent crippling debt, his torment over the loss of his father Leopold (Roy Dotrice), and his strained marriage to Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge). Through it all, Mozart continues to compose works of staggering genius: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and ultimately the Requiem (in Shaffer's conception, Salieri himself commissions the Requiem, and at Mozart's deathbed, helps him to write it). Though a monumental undertaking of location photography (Prague for Vienna) and visually detailed production design and magnificent music conducted and supervised by Sir Neville Marriner, Amadeus is, above all, a crack psychodrama.
"All men are made equal in God's eyes," says Father Vogler (Richard Frank). "Are they?" Salieri retorts. For him, the story is one of existential sturm und drang, a meditation on the mystery of genius in some artists and its cruel absence in others, in spite of devoted vocation. Salieri finds himself torn apart by "Amadeus" (whose middle name means "beloved of God"): as an obsessed fan, Salieri idolizes, befriends, undermines and stalks Mozart, marveling at the man who composed forty operas, "his first concerto at the age of four, his first symphony at 7, a full-scale opera at twelve!" Though he dreams of, and prays for, immortality through his art, Salieri concludes he's a "mediocrity," like nearly all of humanity. The realization is the fuel of his burning artistic, sexual, familial and spiritual jealousy of Mozart: "It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God. But why? Why could God choose an obscene child to be his instrument?"
The lack of an answer drives Salieri mad. As a piece of history, Amadeus would be patently unfair to the real Salieri, who was the subject of unverifiable gossip and whose art is well regarded by many today. But as historical fiction--in the literary tradition of Aleksandr Pushkin's 1831 tragedy Mozart and Salieri--Shaffer's play and screenplay make for fascinating character study. Moving effortlessly through palatial salons, rundown apartments, cobblestone streets and opera houses (graced by the choreography and opera staging of Twyla Tharp), the Oscar-winning Forman works well with Shaffer to create a story conceived to have music, in its bliss and torment, as its leading character.
In Warner's Blu-ray debut of Amadeus: Director's Cut (offering approximately twenty minutes of added footage), the Oscar-winning Best Picture looks as good as it's likely to get without a full-blown frame-by-frame clean-up. Quibbles are perhaps moot, then, as this transfer is a noticeable step up from the previous DVD versions. Still, the usual suspects seen in many aging films are found here: edge enhancement from digital sharpening, a hampering of detail from digital noise reduction's waxiness, and a black level looking a bit greyed. There's just a touch of visual noise here and there, but certainly I'm happily tossing my DVD aside in favor of the improved resolution of Blu-ray. Sound is easier to "trumpet": the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix (and Dolby Digital 5.1 mix) winningly wrap Sir Neville Marriner's glorious orchestrations around you in wholly successful immersion.
All of the DVD Director's Cut features (and more) make their way here, beginning with a commentary by Milos Forman and Peter Shaffer. Their eccentric and therefore interesting conversation covers the people, places, and ideas of the film, as well as script development, production and various personal reflections.
Also on hand is the 2002 doc The Making of Amadeus (1:00:42), a fantastic feature-length making-of filled with fascinating anecdotes about the project's conception and execution. participants include Forman, Jeffrey Jones, F. Murray Abraham, Saul Zaentz, Shaffer, music director Sir Neville Marriner, Tom Hulce, Vincent Schiavelli, executive producer/AD Michael Hausman, production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein, Elizabeth Berridge, choreographer Twyla Tharp, and costume designer Theodor Pistek.
Last up is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:24, SD), but Warner's book-style packaging includes more value: a 36-page glossy booklet with liner-note essays, fun facts and cast bios, as well as a second disc that's a Special CD Compliation of eight Marriner-conducted Mozart pieces.
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