One of the great joys of reviewing movie releases on Blu-ray is the fact that occasionally you're allowed to see the latest incarnation of a personal favourite.
Having been wowed by Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham's performances 25 years ago (was it really that long?) upon the film's original cinema release and then being disappointed by the way it looked on VHS and DVD thereafter, it is very satisfying to report that it has at last been done some justice with the release of the Director's Cut version on Blu-ray.
'Amadeus' began life as a stage play, written in 1979 by English author Peter Shaffer, loosely based on the lives of the composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. The inspiration for 'Amadeus' was 'Mozart and Salieri', a short play by Aleksandr Pushkin and later adapted into an opera of the same name by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Shaffer then adapted his play for the film released in 1984.
The movie's credentials are impeccable. It walzed off with 8 Oscars at the 1985 Academy Awards, including Best Director for Milos Forman and Best Leading Actor for F. Murray Abraham, Best Screenplay for Peter Shaffer and a well deserved Best Sound Award for the audio department. I recall sitting open mouthed upon hearing that Tom Hulce, who played Mozart, had been nominated but did not get a statuette for his mantelpiece. His portrayal of the composer as a spoilt, arrogant, immodest, vulgar man-child was central to the success of the film, causing surprise and wonder in the minds of the cinema audience.
Here was a subject traditionally regarded as 'high brow' being portrayed in a popular manner, showing Mozart as almost a Rock Star of his day. The film also had a hand in bringing classical music to the masses as more people were exposed to the composer's work than ever before.
The movie opens dramatically on a snowy winter's evening as a valet tries to gain entry to the room of his master, the former Viennese Court Composer Antonio Salieri, only to find him on the floor covered in blood having cut his own throat. Consigned to the local mental institution, Salieri is visited by a young priest to whom he tells his tale of jealousy and how he claims to have killed Mozart.
This provides the perfect vehicle to allow the story to be told in flashback and we see the young cleric's attitude change from disbelief to shock and horror as the story unfolds. He also provides the first clue to Salieri's envy of Mozart as he fails to recognize some music, composed by Salieri, played on the period piano, but then suddenly brightens upon recognizing a melody - only to be told that it was composed by Mozart.
The production is a very large scale, sumptuous affair - a real set designer and costume designer's dream. From the interior of Royal palaces to finely embroidered period costumes and flamboyant powdered wigs, it's real eye candy. The film makers had a ready made exterior set in the form of the city of Prague, which doubled as Vienna thanks to its architectural style, reducing the need for large scale construction.
The only drawback appears to have been the number of secret police in the crowds of extras.
The cinematography by Miroslav Ondricek caresses the eye with beautiful lighting and composition that pulls the audience into the widescreen motion picture frame. The interiors were lit with as much natural light as possible, achieved by the application of large sheets of diffuser over the windows. It's also amazing to note that while the photography was nominated for an Oscar, it garnered nothing on the night.
The Director's Cut, as featured on the Blu-ray, is in fact the original cut - just as it was before 20 minutes was hacked from its length to keep the distributors happy. With the missing footage restored we get to understand why Mozart's wife, Stanzi, hates Salieri - having been humiliated by him in a sequence where she visits him at home and 'bares her soul' as well as a couple of other things to get Mozart a gig, but is rejected. The other footage fleshes out Mozart's performances and, while the movie runs for 180 minutes, it does not appear to drag. The pace is consistently moving, unravelling another part of the tale.
One sequence towards the end has Mozart weak and pale from overwork, lying on his bed dictating his Death Masse to Salieri who acts as his scribe. We see Salieri struggle to understand the concepts produced by the mind of the genius, which only serves to underline his own limited abilities - and in his perception, his mediocrity. Salieri rages against his God, who he blames for his lack of talent.
This sequence is simply two characters talking and writing, yet it held me spellbound. Nothing else was going on in the scene, yet my attention was glued to the screen.
Although we may know that Mozart was buried in a pauper's grave, the stark coldness of witnessing the funeral as it may well have occurred in real life still shocks and moves us. How dare this happen to a great composer such as Mozart!
Tom Hulce's performance as Mozart is fascinating. He captures the merriment in the eyes to the extent that he believes he is Mozart and so we, the audience, have our disbelief suspended. We believe it too.
F Murray Abraham turns in a 'tour de force' as Salieri, aided by some convincing ageing make-up and very careful lighting. He never comes across as insane, because he very logically explains what led to his jealousy and desire to destroy something that he envied and admired - simply because he could never hope to shine so brightly himself.
To say that this movie is a two hander, would be a serious mistake and that is because there is a third character - possibly the lead character. I'm talking about the wonderful music that is the legacy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that is with us now and will be there for future generations to enjoy - hopefully promoted by screenings of this classic feature film. 'Amadeus' - you still rock!
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