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After a botched suicide attempt, the ageing composer Antonio Salieri (F Murray Abraham) is confined to an asylum, where he recounts his obsessive competitiveness with the younger Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) many years earlier, to a diligent, caring priest, Father Vogler (Richard Frank). The vulgar Mozart seems inordinately talented to Salieri, who is overlooked by the Royal Court in favour of the mischievous Mozart, to the point of Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) indulging Mozart’s buffoonery in front of Salieri. It is Mozart who is commissioned to write the works that Salieri feels are his due, and when one day Mozart’s young wife Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge) innocently shows Salieri some original compositions written down without a single correction, Salieri’s self-esteem is shattered, recognising the genius he is competing with. He goes so far as to swear to God his revenge: “Because you choose for your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me only the ability to recognize the incarnation…. I will ruin your incarnation.” And when Mozart finally lies dying, Salieri is convinced it was caused by his jealousy, a notion that eventually drives him into the darkness of despair.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
A massive chord from Don Giovanni …. the demented shouts of a man in the snowy darkness. Two servants scurry urgently towards a locked door in a well-to-do 18th century home while stuffing whipped cream buns into their faces under the urgent strains of Mozart’s Symphony No.25 in G Minor K183. From these first exquisite moments, we are enthralled by both the drama and the music in this exceptional movie, my top favourite bio-pic and one of my favourite films of all time. The natural marriage of the music with the story is so pleasing, so ordained even, that it doesn’t matter whether you like classical music or not, whether you think Mozart is a confection or a composer. Milos Forman tells a wonderful story that’s not only based on a real person of considerable interest, but he tells it with all the gusto of a filmmaker in full control of his craft and unafraid to show us historic figures in their undies, as it were. 

From Wolfie himself to Salieri and the Emperor Joseph II, we are treated to genuine characters, people filled with contradictions and self doubt, with jealousies and weaknesses. This film launched F. Murray Abraham’s international career; Tom Hulce is so definitive as Wolfie he can never play another character convincingly; Jeffrey Jones IS Emperor Joseph II; Elizabeth Berridge is vulnerable and delightful and resilient as Constanze…. The film is so good I even forgive the American accents of Hulce and Berridge….(In the commentary, Forman explains his approach to the spoken words, separating the nobility from the commoners, with the commoners speaking in a modern idiom, while the nobility spoke with a ‘proper’ English accent. The idea was to make the dialogue at once accessible as well as period-suggestive.)

Filled with hundreds of magic moments and dozens of striking scenes, the energetic, vibrant and entertaining Amadeus stands up to repeated viewings over many years, with its outstanding production design and of course the sensational orchestrations performed by The Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields under Sir Neville Marriner.

Mozart, whose music has been used in films as varied as My Left Foot and When Harry Met Sally, has never been better represented than here: not only is Marriner a Mozart genius, Milos Forman and Neville Marriner plot the use of Mozart’s work with impeccable taste and perfect placing. The drama of an except from Don Giovanni to the haunting melancholy of Confutatis are all integral to the film’s structure and mood, as well as illustrative of the man’s creative prowess to write glorious music. No wonder Salieri called it taking dictation from God. And perhaps the filmmakers were also listening.

But enough of my raving about the film: let’s talk DVD. This two disc set is very welcome – and about time, I say. Amadeus was the very first DVD I ever saw, and is responsible for my jaw hitting the floor at the time. That vanilla disc (what, three years ago?) has now been truly superceded with a package to thrill the film’s millions of fans. The transfer is gorgeous, the richness of the film fully and cleanly captured in both vision and sound. (I had it on so loud to begin with my windows rattled.)

A little disconcertingly, the commentary track doesn’t have the usual introduction by the two participants at the very beginning, so I kept fussing with the navigation to try and turn it on. It already was. The menu is unclear. A small quibble in the scheme of things, but it wouldn’t have hurt to streamline this aspect in the otherwise splendid package. 

Stop-starting as if distracted by seeing the film again after all this time, Milos Forman and Peter Shaffer take a few scenes to get going, but once they hit their stride, the commentary is riveting stuff, not only for its spontaneity but for its candour and revelation. In fact there is a moment where Forman begins to tell an anecdote about one of the actresses and stops himself, claiming what he was about to say is too ‘private’ – which leads Shaffer to egg him on, but, frustratingly, Forman resists. 

Their discussion is actually very generous, and provides amusing insight into not just the filmmaking but the individuals involved. Forman talks about Marriner insisting that not a single note of Mozart’s be changed – and then discovers from Shaffer that it was Marriner who added the high C for one of the opera scenes, for added drama. 

There is not much fuss made about the inclusion of previously deleted scenes, but it’s good to have them on hand to point them out. 

Some of the trivia reveals that the chandeliers in the Prague opera house – the actual location of a Mozart premiere – were filled with real candles from Italy, which had been specially manufactured to cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek’s request, with three wicks – to give him more light. Enormous quantities were used, keeping Italy’s candle industry burning, according to Forman.

The enormity of the extended, director’s cut version with the commentary takes up the entire Disc 1; in a rare display of generosity, Disc 2 is dedicated to the superb 37 minute documentary (and the trailer). Produced in widescreen and put together with great care and a sense of storytelling, this is one of the very best docos about the making of a film on a DVD. Interviews (recent) with all the key cast and crew – from producer Saul Zaents to an older Tom Hulce with a greying beard - are strung together in a compelling and revealing program, roughly following the progress of the project itself. The story begins in London in 1979, with a reluctant Milos Forman dragged along to see Peter Shaffer’s stage play, Amadeus. 

Details remembered make great anecdotes, and there are a myriad here, including how Forman and Shaffer spent four arduous months together in Forman’s Connecticut home adapting the play to the screen, hating each other’s cooking and escaping at weekends.

There are the strange and funny and dramatic stories – such as how Neville Marriner was told of the project at an airport meeting and had an hour to think about accepting the offer to be involved; working in still communist Prague in 1983 under the watchful eyes of the secret service; of the value of fresh pineapple; of the street soccer accident that cost Meg Tilley the role of Constanze the day before her first scene; of the impasse that eventuated when two actresses were flown to Prague to replace her; and of the four hour make up sessions that gave F. Murray Abraham his ageing Salieri, thanks to make up whizz Dick Smith – and many more.

The documentary is nearly as rich as the film itself, and worth the disc space. If you have never seen Amadeus, give yourself a big treat and spend a couple of nights immersed in one of the great movie miracles of modern cinema. 

Published October 24, 2002

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CAST: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Simon Callow, Roy Dotrice, Chrsitine Ebersole, Jeffrey Jones, Charles Kay

DIRECTOR: Milos Forman

RUNNING TIME: 153 minutes (feature only)

PRESENTATION: 16x9 Panavision 2.35:1; DD 5.1 and 2.0

SPECIAL FEATURES: Disc 1: director’s Cut, includes 20 minutes extra footage; audio commentary by Milos Forman and writer Peter Shaffer Disc 2: The Making of Amadeus documentary (37 mins); trailer, cast & crew highlights

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video

DVD RELEASE: October 23, 2002

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