AMADUMDUM

The most positive thing to say about Miloš Forman’s shameless Amadeus is that it’s PG Ken Russell stuff. You assume the movie will be about Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart and while he’s featured heavily as cackling, tantrummy clown, he’s not the central character. The pivotal personage is respected, successful Italian composer Antonio Salieri who under Austrian emperor Franz Josef II’s reign was Vienna’s concert master and who, because of Mozart’s wife’s never-ending suspicions, is popularly known as Mozart’s alleged murderer. Persistent, embellished rumor has it that during the last five months of his thirty-six years, Mozart thought he was being poisoned—by Salieri or his emissaries. Repeatedly ill from eruptions of maladies, he was writing his last operas, The Clemency of Tito and The Magic Flute, when he was approached by a mysterious man who commissioned him to write what would become the celebrated Requiem. The request thought to be anonymous, the gossip was that Salieri had it commissioned and planned to present the work as his own. The movie blatantly reinforces this myth ala Russell, going so far as to place Salieri at Mozart’s death bed, having conveniently received the last instructions for completing Requiem. The facts are fairly clear that one of Mozart’s pupils—Franz Süssmayr—took his dictation and with the assistance of other composers finished the piece in accordance to Mozart’s wishes. The anonymity was uncovered as well—an eccentric named Franz Count von Walsegg commissioned the piece and probably planned on passing it off as his own. (He had gain notoriety for having done so with other composers.) As Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus attests, using Salieri to employ plots against Mozart makes for theatre of the overripe: Salieri and many all the musical establishment of that time were bitten by the asp of envy, and it is fact that they colluded against Mozart in less than subtle ways to make sure his works were under-appreciated and monetarily unrewarded. It’s also fact Mozart died virtually penniless, having lived on credit and private benefactors. Biographers cite some 100 illnesses he could have succumbed to—one of them his addiction to sweets sometimes referred to as the Nipples of Venus diet inducing diabetes—and the official record states he died from severe miliary fever. (Currently used term is rheumatic fever.) Like the plays from his twin brother Anthony, Peter’s word heaps work on stage because the speculative babble bounces off the equally overstuffed furnishings; in effect, theatre audiences are game for elaborate parlor hoaxes. Transferring to film, and exempting the evolutionary art of politicalspeak, the camera remains a reliable device to expose premise and artifice: Anthony’s Sleuth, a class warfare version of the confining Death Trap, and Forman’s adaptation of Amadeus, given a decorous facade, run out of cover. The great pairing of Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine in the former and one-hit wonders F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce in the latter are, yes, entertaining in the emphasized dross, but they also make us increasingly skeptical watching them working too hard to neutralize the pointlessness in the games played. At the end of Amadeus, Salieri recognizes that his punishment for daring to make deals with God and for his schemes against Mozart is that he’s anointed “the patron saint of mediocrity.” You might want to believe the implicit critical slam after the movie but history is a bit kinder: Salieri taught and helped shape the careers of Franz Schubert and Franz Liszt and, whatever your allowance for Viennese strudel, that’s not nothing. After Hair, Ragtime and AmaDumDum, and a reminder that in 2006 he did Goya’s Ghosts, it’s Forman who ensconced himself as the guardian of the mediocre.

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