Revisiting the 1984 hit (winner of eight Academy Awards®, including Best Picture—Saul Zaentz, producer and Best Actor—F. Murray Abraham) eighteen years later brought back a lot of feelings and impressions, but didn't change my initial conclusion: wrong title; the film (and Peter Shaffer's stage play) should be called Salieri. The only truth depicted about Mozart was his music. The numerous fictional conceits (around which the drama is shaped) did little to illuminate his life or genius.
That said, still, it's a remarkable achievement.
F. Murray Abraham steals the show, greatly aided as the old Salieri by Dick Smith's incredibly realistic makeup. The second-tier composer is caught in a mind-breaking struggle between admiration for the master (unforgettably revealed through Abraham's expressions as, wordlessly, he reviews Mozart's note-perfect manuscripts, hearing their stunning beauty in his mind) and bitter jealousy at the ease with which the Salzburg native's incredible talent flows so steadily from the pen.
But in the final act, as Salieri commissions the D minor Requiem (parts of which many scholars attribute to the Italian conniver), the story suffers irreparable damage. For who could believe that a man with the ear of Mozart, despite his rival's masquerade disguise (previously worn by his estranged father), would fail to recognize the voice of his court competitor?! (And, in retrospect, the entire masked-ball scene was an astonishing premonition of Stanley Kubrick's last offering, Eyes Wide Shut.)
That's the kind of plot let-down that could only happen in works like, well, operas! And, seen from that point of view, this film, where the music's absolutely wonderful and the action doesn't really matter, is a little easier to digest—like the constantly-returning sweets routine. But was that the author's intent?
Director Milos Forman has fun with the material and merrily goes about his way inserting lots of bawdy humour (from farts to overflowing push-up bras) to the point that when the parody-opera sequence finally comes along it doesn't provide the contrast that it should. And he gives Tom Hulce free reign to portray the world's most sublime composer as a drunken, selfish fool giggling his way into the ears of Vienna. But the music tracks, beautifully rendered by conductor Sir Neville Marriner and his intrepid band (the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, that provides a solid base for the real stars of the piece, although the first violins could have stood one more rehearsal and the tempo of the Overture to Die Zauberflöte had me wondering if a slow-motion sequence was about to begin) were continually at odds with what was on the screen: no one as morally and humanly bankrupt as Shaffer's protagonist could have written so many masterpieces that consistently bring life's truth to our souls.
Of the leads, Elizabeth Berridge as the wunderkind's wife, Constanza, is the weak link. Her performance comes across as more puzzled with her role than trying to effect change and control her husband. Jeffrey Jones' portrayal of the monarch-musician wannabe, Emperor Joseph II, was a pleasure; his wig and features making him a double for Joseph Haydn.
And so we all descended into madness: Salieri tried to rid the planet of his nemesis and spit on his God, Mozart slipped away—writing round-the-clock trying to fulfill his over-stretched commitments (and the death-bed dictation scene is so far over-the-top on the credibility scale that I'll just leave it here, in these brackets)—even as the good citizens of Vienna partied on—largely oblivious to the creative fount that will enrich their ancestors' forever. Give us farce and fun before substance: Some things never change.
Yet the image that will haunt me forever is that of white powder: used early on to freshen up his garish wig was good fun but when it returned near the last frame, (this time as lime dust thrown over the burlap-wrapped corpse, which was surrounded by other penniless souls), the tears wouldn't stop. “Lacrimosa,” indeed. JWR