Miloš Forman’s shameless Amadeus is not much more than PG Ken Russell stuff. With its title, you’d assume the movie will be about Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. Featured heavily, he’s not the central character. The pivotal personage is the 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. During this time and repeatedly ill from a variety of maladies, Mozart was writing his last operas, The Clemency of Tito and The Magic Flute, and as he was composing them he was approached by a mysterious man who commissioned him to write his 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, even going so far as to place Salieri at Mozart’s death bed, having conveniently received the last instructions for completing Requiem. The facts aren’t entirely clear but it’s likely that one of Mozart’s pupils took his dictation and with the assistance of other composers finished the piece as they believed Mozart would have wanted it. 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. Because there’s some fuzziness about Walsegg, as well as who in fact completed Requiem, sinister theories flourished. Dramatically, as Peter Shaffer’s play attests, using Salieri to foster plots of intrigue and dirty shenanigans makes for bedecked theatre: Salieri and most all the musical establishment of the time were bitten by the asp of envy, and it is fact that they conspired 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. But there’s no proof or historically accepted suspicion he was murdered. (Biographers cite more than 100 illnesses he could have succumbed to, and the official record is he died from “severe miliary fever”; the broadly accepted cause is rheumatic fever.) As with the plays of his twin brother Anthony, Shaffer’s word heaps work on stage because the speculative babble bounces off the equally fake sets, sounding impressive and authoritatively speculative. In effect, theatre audiences applaud the trumped-upness as elaborate palor games. Exempting the evolutionary art of politicalspeak, the camera still remains a reliable lie detector: as with Sleuth, Amadeus is infuriating because all the theatrical conjecture lacks plausible elusiveness—actors like the great Laurence Olivier and near-great Michael Caine and one-hit wonders like F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce become disbelievingly arched and archetypal. And eventually insulting: Forman manages to annul Mozart’s transcendent music. At the end of this dross, Salieri recognizes that his punishment for daring to make deals with God and for his plotting against Mozart is that he’s anointed “the patron saint of mediocrity.” You want to believe it after the movie but history is a bit kinder: notwithstanding the implicit slam, Salieri taught and helped shape the careers of Franz Schubert and Franz Liszt. After Hair, after Ragtime, and after AmaDumDum, it’s Forman who’s the guardian of the mediocre. He’s retained the crown even into the new millennium with 2006’s Goya’s Ghosts.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.