Amadeus (1984) is still the gold standard for cinema 38 years after its debut. It features brilliant, compelling dialogue, courtesy of Peter Shaffer’s 1979 stage play of the same name. The plot is paced at a captivating, rhythmic tempo, despite the fact that each scene breathes and arcs in masterful fashion. Best of all, though, are actors Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham, who deliver career-defining performances en route to twin nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actor, which Abraham won.
The film exploded to widespread critical acclaim in late 1984 and box office earnings of over $52 million. It also won a staggering 43 awards, including four Golden Globe Awards and eight Academy Awards. In 2019, it was approved for preservation in the United States Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
If you’re dying to discover a new favorite, this is your movie. If you yearn to see the peak of human emotion captured on film, this is your movie. If you’ve ever wondered what Vienna was like in the 1700’s, this is your movie. Take my word for it — where period dramas tend to be stuffy and boring, Amadeus is alive with action and modernism.
Nearly four decades later, Amadeus remains a class act in cinematic storytelling. Its exposition is masterfully crafted, giving audiences just enough information to work with before plunging headfirst into the heart of the action. And while the use of voice-over is typically associated with lazy screenwriting, the story is so anchored to our antagonist that it makes his confession feel integral to the story as opposed to forced for the sake of routine.
The film wastes no time introducing audiences to the character of Antonio Salieri (Abraham), a once-famous court composer in Vienna who has, inexplicably, just admitted to the murder of renowned musical prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Hulce). Salieri is offered a confession by the benevolent Father Vogler, upon which the story explores Mozart’s rise to fame in Vienna. This is why Amadeus works so well: it blends historical intrigue with themes of mystery and the added benefit of Mozart’s own music serving as the film’s soundtrack.
However, much to Salieri’s disapproval and audience’s delight, the Mozart portrayed in Amadeus is revealed to be a creative genius with obscene tendencies and vulgar humor. Salieri, a devout Catholic, cannot fathom God’s decision to endow Mozart with transcendent talent and views it as proof of his own mediocrity. Haunted by this revelation, Salieri vows to spite God and exact revenge on Him by destroying Mozart.
Remarkably, Abraham portrays both young and old Salieri, which weaves each flashback quite cleverly and grants the film a unique, agile dynamism. His character is so believable that Amadeus will make you want to watch again and again for any hint of flaw or inconsistency. But you won’t find any — it is only in the sheer depth of Abraham’s performance that one begins to view him as tragic in his own right. The humanity of Salieri’s impulses ultimately makes his professed mediocrity more devastating and characterizes him as a slave to self-ascribed vanity, horror and tragedy.
Yet even the smallest characters and moments are believable in Amadeus. When Vienna’s commonwealth marvel at Mozart’s genius, you believe it. When Emperor Joseph and his advisors balk at Mozart’s brash thematic selections, you want them to recognize his willingness to pursue musical innovation instead. And when Salieri describes, in intricate detail, the miracle of Mozart’s talent, you feel his helplessness and disgust. Scenes like that live and breathe beyond the ordinary; they are as rare as the composer the movie is named after.
A perfect example of this is depicted in the scene below. Audiences will feel the pulse of Salieri’s torment just as keenly as the music that swells and flourishes alongside it. But never does his shock and awe take away from the true paradox of the scene — that Salieri’s faith is shaken when he sees proof of the divine.
Another great quality of the film is its immersive nature. One might quite literally forget they are watching a retelling of Mozart’s life, because each line is delivered with impeccable authenticity and flawless execution. Few movies can suck audiences into a screen like Amadeus does. And in the end, its conclusion (in which Mozart is worked to death by the memory of his father) is subversive enough to overwhelm puzzlement and leave audiences with a strange impulse to hum the soundtrack for at least the next few weeks.
Above all else, though, Amadeus is a compelling narrative of a man pushed to the edges of sanity by his own genius. It is a tragedy disguised as fantasia. For all that is glorious in the world of cinema, Amadeus is still a must-watch for movie buffs, a treasure for aspiring actors and a mesmeric three hours for amateur audiences.