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Amadeus (Best Picture, 1984)

Thanks to my high school choir director, I have seen AMADEUS more than any other film in the Best Picture lineup.  It’s possible I’ve seen AMADEUS more than any other film period, but I don’t care to spend the time considering all the options.

When I first saw it, I didn’t like it.  But with every successive viewing, the film has grown in my estimation.  I think now that perhaps my dislike came from the disjointed viewing that comes from watching a three-hour movie in forty-five minute chunks over the course of a week.  It was hard to get involved in it, and all I could see was the immature obscenity of Mozart and the spiteful resentfulness of Salieri.

But this film grows on me in much the same way that Mozart’s music has grown on me.  I used to be all about the great Baroque composers like Handel and Bach, and while I still love their music for its precision, organization, and florid embellishment, I find myself increasingly drawn to the soaring arcs of the Classical period.

On the back of the AMADEUS DVD case, there is a comment from a reviewer saying that AMADEUS is “as close to perfection as movies get.”  I must say I have to agree, especially if one watches the director’s cut, as I have done.  I’ve seen the theatrical release enough times to know which 20 minutes have been restored to the film, and they add.  At one point in the film, Salieri remarks that Mozart’s music manuscripts are perfect – shift one note and it is diminished.  This film is remarkably like that.  The theatrical release is brilliant.  Adding in scenes originally cut is risky, and could have caused the film to drag at moments, but instead it moves along with the smooth confidence of one of Mozart’s own compositions.

At heart, AMADEUS is about basic emotions of life – envy, arrogance, desperate seeking for parental approval, and the struggle to have faith in a just God.  As I watched the film this time, I started to wonder about the choice of name.  It’s based on a play by Peter Shaffer of the same name, which is in turn based on a play (Mozart i Salieri) from 1830 by Alexander Pushkin.  The film could have been called “Mozart” or “Wolfgang” but they went with Mozart’s middle name, Amadeus.

“Amadeus” means “God’s love,” a name especially appropriate for the film.  Told from the point of view of perfectly competent but not genius composer Antonio Salieri, much of the film revolves around Salieri’s childhood plea and pledge to God for the gift of music.  If God will give him the gift of composition so that His glory may be expressed through music, Salieri will dedicate himself to virtuous behavior of all kinds.  Then Mozart, this filthy-minded, spoiled young man appears on the Viennese music scene, and Salieri’s faith in a just God is destroyed.  How can such an extraordinary gift of music, a gift Salieri sees as a clear sign of God’s love, be given to this man?

I think many of us struggle with something similar, though it is rarely so destructive as it appears in AMADEUS.  There is a skill or a quality we long to have, and we work ourselves to the bone trying to achieve our goal.  Then someone shows up for whom it comes as easily as breathing, gaining accolades and praise for something that is natural while all our hard works leaves us in second place.

Not all Best Pictures are created equal.  Sometimes one film will appear in which every participant, from director to stars to the people who hang tracing paper on windows to diffuse the light, hit some kind of collective sweet spot and create a work of art that defies description.  AMADEUS is firmly in this category.

Out of Africa (Best Picture, 1985)

Mmmmm… Robert Redford before he became made of leather….

So, imagine it’s 1914 and you’re a well-bred white woman accompanied by African servants, trekking across a hostile wilderness full of potential threats from man and wildlife.  What kind of MORONS don’t post guards at night?!  Yeesh.

I liked OUT OF AFRICA more than I expected to, in spite of moments that smack of the self-martyring vapidity of BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (he’s wild… untamed…. if I love him, I have to set him free… true, perhaps, but it always sounds stupid when said aloud.)

For all that Karen (Meryl Streep) is very much a privileged white woman in a British colony (or soon-to-be-colony), and displays the slightly patronizing kindness of her type towards the Kikuyu tribespeople living and working on her farm, she is remarkably sympathetic.  We feel for her, taking on the challenges of this new world that might as well be on another planet from her native Denmark.  She struggles with feelings for the man she married for convenience, and who routinely strays, which lead her to contract a bad case of syphilis – extremely dangerous in that time.  Karen’s treatment requires her to return to Denmark and undertake a series of a medication that is apparently mostly arsenic.  In other words, it’s the chemotherapy of her day.

I think the real star of this film is the cinematography.  The images of Africa, both close ups and long shots, are remarkable, and the movements and foci of the camera views make the audience into a third, silent character sitting at the table with Karen and the other characters.

OUT OF AFRICA is much slower than AMADEUS, but that’s kind of the point.  According to the Wikipedia article on the film, the director and producers of OUT OF AFRICA intentionally pulled that slowness from the autobiographical work on which the film is based.

This time around we’ve had love of God and love of man.  Quite a good double bill, actually.

Next Up: Platoon (Best Picture, 1986) and The Last Emperor (Best Picture, 1987)