AFI 100 #53: AMADEUS


I’m dedicating two years of my life to watching and reviewing every movie on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies, even the ones I’ve seen before. Here’s #53, Amadeus.

As great as Amadeus is, watching it in light of director Milos Forman’s later films feels like looking at pictures of the romantic getaway that led directly to a terrible breakup.

Milos Forman (actually Miloš, but those are some expensive keystrokes) began his film career in 1950s Czechoslovakia. His films were wildly popular, to the point that his influence can still be felt in modern Czech slang. But life in Warsaw Pact countries wasn’t easy for anyone with a creative mind. You had one of two options: 1) Dedicate your artistic life to the state and hope your style of propaganda doesn’t fall out of fashion, or 2) Be a great artist on your own terms and hope that your popularity with the people outweighs your unpopularity with the ruling bureaucracy.

Forman was one of the symbols of the Czechoslovak New Wave, a movement that occurred during Party Secretary Alexander Dubcek’s (again, actually Dubček) reign. Dubcek attempted to institute a policy called “socialism with a human face” that flew in the face of stodgy, dogmatic directives from Moscow. Forman’s career flourished with films like Lovers of a Blonde and The Fireman’s Ball, both of which were hits and were nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscars.

Well, Moscow didn’t take kindly to “socialism with a human face,” so along came what has come to be known as the Prague Spring of 1968. Czechoslovakia was invaded by 5 other Warsaw Pact countries, including the USSR itself. There was a real revolution going on, but sadly we’ll never know what could have happened had Prague been allowed to flourish (Gorbachev later suggested that his policy of glasnost was inspired by Dubcek).

As luck would have it, Forman was negotiating film rights in Paris during the Prague Spring. He established a career in the US with classics like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, er … Valmont, Hair, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man…on…the…Moon…….

Does anybody else see a pattern here? All of these are either adaptations or biopics, sometimes both. All of them are performance-driven movies, relying less on writing and cinematography and more on informed casting. Most of them are essentially the same plot: Here’s an interesting guy. Here are episodes from his life. Here are shots of people reacting to interesting things this interesting guy does.

This approach worked beautifully for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and this week’s film Amadeus. And in general I applaud directors who recognize when they need to take a step back and just let a movie happen. But directors who do this don’t usually have the greatest batting average. I see the same trouble with Forman that I do with Clint Eastwood, in that they are so committed to naturalism and keep the artsy-fartsy stuff to a minimum that they neglect to seriously scrutinize a script that needs reworking.

This approach rarely leads to outright bad films, only disappointments. Eastwood hits the nail on the head in films like Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Gran Torino, Unforgiven and Letters from Iwo Jima because those rely so heavily on dialogue, performances and realism; but he misses the mark with Invictus, J. Edgar and Flags of Our Fathers because he didn’t approach them as an artist. Forman has had largely the same track records in his American career, with two amazing films and several mediocre ones that were salvaged by fine performances.

So there’s why I appreciate Amadeus but have a difficult time enjoying it. All I can see are Forman’s choices and style that are perfect for this film and one or two others that condemned his later films to mediocrity.

The acting is phenomenal, the music is very tastefully showcased and the sets, costuming, editing and pacing are all perfect. The narrative works from Salieri’s point of view, even if it isn’t the truest version of the story. It has one of the greatest scenes of all time, the one embedded above. Normally these “Hey, check out all the technical terms we’re using” are irritating, but here it works as two masters find a common language.

Amadeus isn’t exactly a biography. It’s a very literal adaptation of a play that takes some pretty extreme liberties with the historical facts surrounding the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The story hits the notes it needs to; Mozart was a child prodigy, he was a bit of a rockstar, Salieri was a bit mediocre and probably jealous, Mozart did die young and unexpectedly while working on a funerary piece, etc. But pretty much everything else is an invention on the part of the original play by Peter Shaffer.

The story is told from the point of view of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, who won an Oscar for this film), a very capable and pious Italian composer who comes to be a jaded and jealous old man. We meet him as an old man in an insane asylum, where he is living the rest of his days cursing God. He is visited by a priest who has come to absolve Salieri of his sins, which then launches the rant to end all rants. He tells the priest how all he ever wanted was to praise God with music, but bitterness over Mozart’s natural talent and undignified behavior ultimately consumed him (I kinda feel bad for the actor who played the priest; his entire part is reaction shots).

Salieri’s narrative follows Mozart as he coasts by on his talent but suffers from his vices. He’s an impertinent horndog whose talent is seemingly divine. He ruffles feathers with operas based on banned plays or salacious librettos. The name Amadeus is very intentionally chosen, translating approximately to “Lover of God.” It emphasizes Salieri’s obsession with why God would choose a brat over a loyal servant.

In some ways, Forman is opposite of this film’s depiction of Mozart. He chose his source material wisely but does nothing to enhance it artistically.

Comments: Californication is one of my most beloved albums, but I have difficulty listening to it because all I hear is the middling present-day RHCP that sprang from it. I feel the same way about Amadeus.

Deserves to be in Top 100: It’s the best version of itself and everything Forman does is perfect, but he essentially pointed a camera at some amazing actors in front of pretty sets. But I don’t think Forman deserves to films on this list. I’d say keep One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, ditch Amadeus.

Inspired: Ordinary biopics about extraordinary people; Ray, The Aviator and J. Edgar spring to mind.

Next Week: #52 From Here to Eternity

Last Week: #54 All Quiet on the Western Front





6 Responses to AFI 100 #53: AMADEUS

  1. Matt Goisman says:

    If Forman did a lot of things to intentionally make his movies mediocre, I’d buy your argument. But as you admit, mostly Forman sits back and lets the actors do their thing. Therefore, shouldn’t each film’s merits be based ON those actors? Amadeus and cuckoo’s nest are both brilliantly acted, enough to get them on the afi list. That they’re both Forman is almost irrelevant. The director shouldn’t be everything, and I’m not even sure s/he should be the main thing.

  2. Kelly Kelly says:

    I’d have to agree with Matt on this one. I feel it would be remiss to exclude Amadeus on the AFI List. Taken in as a film by itself (with no knowledge of the director’s other works), it is everything I could ask for — at times serious, others farcical, and the acting & dialogue are memorable and convincing.

    It’s on my classics self, for sure.

    However, as with all your reviews, I feel like I’m seeing movies I know and love from a different light!

  3. Except that praising the film in terms of characters, story, themes and symbolism is really just praising the play. So does the fact that the play is cleverly done make this a great film by default? It bothers me when an author gets a Grammy for best spoken-word because they did a book-on-tape of an award-winning book. To me, that doesn’t automatically equal good spoken-word, no matter how good the book is.

    Incidentally, the AFI agreed with me for the revised list. They ditched Amadeus and kept One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I think this should be remembered, seen and enjoyed, but not held up as one of the greats.

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