Though Milos Forman’s filmization of Peter Schaffer’s play “Amadeus” won eight Oscars, including those for best picture, director and actor, in 1984, it’s always been more admired than loved. The narrative–about the way in which the competent but uninspired court composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), in an act of vengeance against the God he believes has cheated him, destroyed (or insanely believed that he had destroyed) the young Mozart (Tom Hulce), whom he saw as a divine instrument–certainly raises serious questions: it deals, among other things, with the clash between mediocrity and genius, and with the mysterious character of God’s providence in human affairs. Its treatment of those issues, however, isn’t terribly deep, and from the intellectual perspective the film is rather muddled; there’s a sense of false profundity constantly at work While the production afforded the material is opulent, moreover, the pace is so stately and genteel that it could be criticized in the same terms that its version of Mozart applies to the static operas that preceded his own. “Amadeus” is also an extremely talky piece: following the structure of the play on which it’s based, it devotes a good deal of the running-time to the elderly Salieri recounting his relationship with Mozart to the audience (whose surrogate is now a priest who wants to serve as the old man’s confessor). The characters, moreover, are sketched in broad, overemphatic strokes (less suited to the screen than the stage); it’s hard to see them as anything but elements of an argument rather than sympathetic individuals. (That may explain why neither Abraham nor Hulce had a sterling career afterward, despite their good work here.) The approach gives the picture a detached, dry tone that makes it eminently admirable, but not really moving. Ironically, “Amadeus” seems like the sort of well- crafted but oddly pedestrian film a Salieri might make, rather than the brilliant, inspired creation of a Mozart.
Still, “Amadeus” was a sort of intimate epic, and while it never matched the transcendent beauty of the music with which it was filled, it seemed to have a seriousness–despite its flashes of wicked humor (especially in Jeffrey Jones’ hilarious turn as the empty-headed Emperor Joseph II)–that merited recognition and respect. And in the current “director’s cut,” it emerges looking and sounding wonderful again, filling the wide screen with color and richness. It’s certainly worth seeking out and savoring once more for its many virtues, not the least of them the shards of Mozart’s music sprinkled liberally throughout it–and very nicely played. (And the scene in which Mozart blithely converts Salieri’s march of welcome into “Non piu andrai,” without realizing the offense he’s giving, remains a masterful joke.)
Yet this is a somewhat different film from that issued eighteen years ago. The old version ran about 160 minutes; the new one has grown to 188. The most prominent additions are a couple of scenes involving a tin-earned, dog-loving Viennese businessman named Schlumberg (Kenneth McMillan), whose daughter briefly becomes (at Salieri’s intervention) Mozart’s pupil. The earlier of them shows Mozart stalking out in disgust after the man refuses to keep his mongrels out of the practice-room, and the latter depicts the now-dissolute composer returning to beg a loan–unsuccessfully. (The first is preceded by another new sequence, a conversation between the two composers in which Mozart intrigues Salieri by letting slip that he’s working on a big project, which turns out to be “Le Nozze di Figaro.”) Other added minutes include a brief introduction to the visit that Constanze Mozart makes to Salieri to ask him to look over her husband’s scores, showing the court composer with one of his students, and a scene in which Mozart goes to Katerina Cavalieri’s dressing-room after the premiere of “Die Entführung aus dem Serail,” reinforcing Salieri’s conviction that the younger man has seduced his prize pupil. Forman has probably made lesser adjustments at other points as well, though they’re less immediately apparent.
What’s the effect of all this tinkering? In some respects the narrative runs more smoothly–the added conversation between Salieri and Mozart, for example, is helpful in explaining why the plot unfolds as it does afterward. Unhappily, its inclusion necessitated the addition of the two Schlumberg sequences, which–to be perfectly honest–should never have seen the light of day: both are heavy-handed and far too broad, with McMillan looking (and sounding) very much out of place. The dressing-room sequence is basically redundant, as is the brief conversation between Salieri and his pupil prior to Constanze’s arrival. More, in this case, doesn’t necessarily mean better.
Still, that’s no reason for you to skip the opportunity to see “Amadeus” on the big screen once again. It’s not a classic, but it is a solid, if somewhat stolid, picture of an extravagant, vaguely cerebral kind that’s not made very often nowadays. Though it’s unlikely to transport you to the degree that Mozart’s works did Salieri, it does at least hint at the miraculous quality of his music.