They just don't make 'em like they used to. 2016 is not a time in which a nearly three hour-long, biographical period piece about a classical composer could not only sweep most of the Oscars, but also to earn nearly triple its budget in box office returns. The fact that it's also still an incredibly well made and awe-inspiring epic is even more astounding.
Antonio Salieri (Best Actor-winning F. Murray Abraham) is winnowing his last days in an insane asylum, where he drones endlessly on about his responsibility for the long-past death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce). Salieri, himself a composer, albeit a mediocre and unremembered one, was Mozart's contemporary in the Vienna court under Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones). Salieri has convinced himself that he poisoned Mozart's career such that the genius musician lost all will to live, despite being an incredibly famous and well regarded artist in his time. A naive priest acts as the audience's stand-in as Salieri recounts his unlikely story to the young man.
Salieri has reason to be bitter about Mozart: the man was a boor, frequently abandoning the side of his loving wife, Constanze (Elizbeth Derridge) to frolic about with painted whores and ne'er-do-wells after the sun went down. Mozart was also impetuous to his patrons, blithely flaunting custom and the rules set by the Emperor himself that governed the theater at the time. Salieri, conversely, has imposed on himself a life of chastity and asceticism, in an apparent bid with God to grant him divine inspiration as a composer. You can imagine why he'd be miffed when someone who lives seemingly without care or effort breezes in and takes away the spotlight towards which Salieri has worked his entire life.
But Salieri nevertheless respects Mozart and is continually struck by the majesty of the man's work. He attends all of Mozart's operas--even the unpopular ones, the swift ends of which Salieri jealously engineers behind the scenes--and even visits Mozart in mask and costume as a shadowy patron who commissions the composer to write his magnum opus: a Requiem that would ultimately go unfinished. Salieri is a complete paradox and an endlessly fascinating character. Mozart may have been the brighter burning flame, but Salieri was easily the more complex man.
Director Milos Forman is obsessed with iconoclastic men. In this same vein, he also made One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon. But never before, or after, would Forman mount such a handsome, enormous production around this central theme. I've seen only Cuckoo's Nest, but I'd be surprised if Amadeus were not Forman's crowning achievement. It is so ambitious, so wholly crafted, from its costuming, editing, production design, makeup and even the sound design, that it's difficult to imagine anything being so bold as this film. I'm not even sure that I've seen anything quite this magnificent in a film before. It's the kind of movie that one makes, and then wishes they hadn't, so they wouldn't have to follow it up afterward.
There are also the larger-than-life performances by Abraham and Hulce, who were both nominated for the Best Actor Oscar in the same year, an occurrence that has not since repeated itself since 1985. They are such vastly different performances--the former internal, the latter utterly external--but they complement each other so well. It's almost irrelevant that these men are based on actual people: playwright and screenwriter, Peter Shaffer, cites extensive artistic license when he wrote this. Of course, because who cares whether the depiction of these men is accurate? Their relationship is so elemental, their struggle so grand, that it becomes almost allegorical in its scope. It's as the Joker says, "This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object."
I saw the Director's Cut on Netflix. It adds 20 minutes to the original running time of 160 minutes. I'm not sure what's new and what isn't, but it all feels necessary.