Thursday, March 4, 2010

Favourite Film Scenes: Amadeus (1984)

AMADEUS (1984)
DIRECTED BY: Milos Foreman
STARRING: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Jeffrey Jones and Simon Callow

THE BASIC PLOT: Based on Paul Shaffer's play, Amadeus takes a fictional look at Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's astronomical rise to fame in the late-eighteenth century Vienna. The genius Austrian composer and former child prodigy (played in the film by Tom Hulce) transforms from a charming, albeit arrogant, youth into a raging paranoid alcoholic. However, for the most part, the story unfolds through the eyes of Mozart's rival, Italian composer Antonio Salieri (played by F. Murray Abraham). According to popular myth, Salieri had a hand in Mozart's premature death in 1791 at the age of 35. The film went on to win a total of 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (for F. Murray Abraham).

MY FAVOURITE SCENE: The very end of the film, when a dying Mozart lies on his deathbed, too weak to complete his final composition, the Requiem Mass in D Minor. He enlists the help of Italian composer Antonio Salieri, thinking he is a loyal friend when, in fact, Salieri is insanely jealous of Mozart's talent and is tempted to pass off the Requiem Mass as his own piece, once Mozart is dead.

WHY?: This scene is incredible, powerful and well-edited. It illustrates Mozart's genius through the way that he can make up something as epic as the Requiem Mass right on the spot, with little or no self-editing. This was an actual fact about Mozart, who very rarely had to edit his own work. He was naturally gifted and, more than any other scene in the film, this grand finale really allows to the audience to experience his brilliance.

I love how director Milos Foreman chose to have a sickly Mozart weakly vocalize and try to articulate his music to Salieri as he lay in bed. Meanwhile, the soundtrack translates it into actual music. I love how Mozart's fading voice and the soundtrack play over top of one another in layers. Before your eyes, a piece of music is created for the audience. You can literally hear and experience it all coming together. It's all layered and beautifully presented on film.

The performances by F. Murray Abraham, as Salieri, and Tom Hulce, as Mozart, are absolutely perfect. I love the look on Abraham's face when his Salieri realizes he will never be the talent that Mozart is, no matter how great his attempts, no matter how feverish his prayers to God. Despite the fact that he loathes Mozart and feels he is an ungrateful, spoiled brat, Salieri wishes he had the ability to hear and see music as Mozart does; to be "God's instrument." The awe is evident in Salieri's face. It outweighs his jealousy, in the end. Salieri is a music-lover first and foremost and he can appreciate the unique and effortless genius of Mozart. One of the real tragedies, though, is that Salieri wasn't mediocre at all. However, history may suggest otherwise as his compositions are rarely heard anymore.

Abraham is flawless in this film and it's one of my all-time favourite male performances. He registers Salieri's jealousy perfectly. Despite Salieri's self-appointed title as the "patron saint of mediocrity", he is an incredibly sympathetic character. Who hasn't, at some point in their life, felt inferior to someone else's seemingly effortless talent? We all fear mediocrity, of being forgotten when we are gone. No one can really begrudge Salieri that feeling. Abraham gives a wonderfully subtle performance. Instead of going over the top, his emotions are always just below the surface, ready to burst. His demeanour is in direct contrast to the childlike exuberance that Hulce gives Mozart.

Even if you've never seen Amadeus (and, if you haven't, you really should), at least do yourself the favour and watch this scene. Mozart died at the age of 35 without having completed his Requiem Mass, but the parts he did leave behind are haunting and beautiful. Though the film is not an accurate biographical account of Mozart, by any means, it's a captivating look at the battle between two composers, one with genuine talent and the other who struggles with mediocrity. And this final scene between Mozart and Salieri is the best moment of this often-forgotten cinematic masterpiece.

Watch the scene here: