The most positive thing to say about Miloš Forman’s shameless Amadeus is how close it gets to popping out as PG Ken Russell claptrap. You want to 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. With her babblings helping to embellish the rumors making the rounds during the last five months of his thirty-six years, Mozart might have also believed he was being poisoned—if not by Salieri, then 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, more gossip spread it was Salieri who 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: 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 most all the musical establishment of the time were bitten by the asp of envy (“too many notes”), and it is considered fact they colluded against Mozart in less than subtle ways to make sure his works were under-appreciated and monetarily unrewarded. Factual as well is 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 speculation 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 his punishment for daring to make deals with God and for his schemes against Mozart—being self-anointed “the patron saint of mediocrity.” You might accept 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, it’s not nothing. After Hair, Ragtime and AmaDumDum, and a reminder in 2006 he did Goya’s Ghosts, Forman ensconced himself as the guardian of the mediocre.


Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.