Genius is a fascinating subject, and a challenging one to film; all too often, a film portrait of a genius comes across as either incomprehensible or superhuman. Amadeus is not the only film I've seen that tackles this monumental topic, but it is undoubtedly the best. Between the script and actor Tom Hulce, Mozart comes vividly to life as a young man full of life, possessed of a musical ability that to him is as natural as breathing, and as necessary for his existence. Full to the brim with both the ability and the desire to create perfect music, Mozart is possessed by his gift as much as possessing it.
What really makes Amadeus work to perfection, though, is the fact that the character of Mozart is seen through the eyes of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), the man who desperately desires everything that Mozart is, and that he himself cannot be. As much as Mozart, perhaps even more so, Salieri lives, breathes, and dreams music; he has dedicated his life to becoming the greatest composer of all time. Before actually meeting Mozart, Salieri could be secure in his accomplishments and feel that he was achieving what he dreamed of; after seeing true genius, Salieri must live with the knowledge that while he has talent – a genuine ability to create beautiful music – it pales to nothing beside Mozart's gift.
But Salieri can't live with that knowledge... and therein lies the story of Amadeus, an inspired blend of historical fact and clever conjecture. There is no proof that Salieri actually killed Mozart, and in fact it is generally considered to be a popular myth; on the other hand, it is also historical record that the dying Salieri, in the throes of a nervous breakdown, accused himself of murdering Mozart. Writer Peter Shaffer seizes the idea of the aged Salieri, obsessed by the brief, bright flame that had been Mozart, and uses it to build a complex, psychologically convincing character drama that draws viewers in and keeps them glued to the events playing out on the screen.
Amadeus is a dazzling gem of a film. Every scene is polished, fitting smoothly into the next; the pacing is perfect, with the three hours of its running time slipping by as if only a moment had passed; the sets and costuming are exquisite, convincingly transporting the viewer into the world of the 1780s and bringing it to life. Within that world, each character is brought to life by an outstanding cast, all of whom are completely convincing, From Mozart and Salieri to the Emperor of Austria, from the composers of Vienna to sweet but tough-minded Constanza, Mozart's wife, from Mozart's father to the young maid whom Salieri draws into his schemes, every character is deftly drawn and plays exactly the part that's necessary: no more and no less. Most particularly, F. Murray Abraham richly deserves the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role that he earned for his work in Amadeus.
The Director's Cut of Amadeus includes approximately 20 minutes of additional footage that had been cut from the 1984 theatrical release of the film. Considering that the theatrical release won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, one might reasonably be concerned that the additional scenes would dilute the effect of an exceptional film. Too often, a "director's cut" can mean the indulgent re-addition of material that should have been left on the cutting room floor, but that the director in retrospect became overly fond of. Therefore, it was with delight that I discovered that the additional footage restored to Amadeus made an outstanding film even better.
The restored material occurs mainly in the first half of the film, and includes entire scenes that were edited out of the original release. These scenes, involving interactions between Salieri, Mozart, and Mozart's wife, as well as Mozart attempting to find pupils to teach, significantly enrich the story of the film, in particular giving greater depth to the character of Mozart's wife and greater motivation behind Salieri's "war" against Mozart. Many of the later scenes are much richer and more meaningful in the context of the restored film. Without any doubt, the Director's Cut of Amadeus should be considered the definitive version of the film.
The question on many viewers' minds reading this review will be "is the transfer different from the earlier release?" After all, the original release was anamorphic already; however, the Director's Cut contains a new, digitally restored and remastered picture. Does the new transfer make a difference? Since I own the first Amadeus DVD, I was able to do a specific scene-to-scene comparison of the two transfers, and I can confirm that the Director's Cut transfer is indeed an improvement over the earlier release. Gone are the print flaws and scratches that were in the first release, to begin with. Colors are also significantly better: not only do the colors overall look more vibrant, but the color balance of entire scenes has been corrected. There is also less noise overall, resulting in a generally more attractive, lively, and natural-looking image.
Taken by itself, not just compared to the earlier release, Amadeus Director's Cut offers an outstanding visual image. The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and is anamorphically enhanced. The print is clean, with no marks or flecks appearing anywhere; I did notice a small amount of noise in some scenes, but it's neither widespread nor obtrusive. Unfortunately, the image does show some slight edge enhancement, as did the original release. Amadeus is a visually spectacular film with liberal use of color, and the new transfer does an outstanding job of presenting the entire range of colors and shading in a clean, vivid, lifelike manner.
Many of the scenes are challenging in terms of lighting and contrast. For instance, the scenes with the aged Salieri talking with the priest have him in relative shadow against a background of brightly-lit window panes; other scenes feature bright candle flames in dark rooms, or startling silhouettes of dark figures against snow. The transfer handles these situations very well. I noticed that some of the darker scenes tended to be slightly brownish rather than true black, but this is a minor issue; the main point is that the image correctly handles the contrast challenges to preserve the image detail.
A film about the life and work of one of the greatest composers of all time needs – in fact, demands – a soundtrack of the highest caliber. The Dolby 5.1 track of Amadeus Director's Cut lives up to my expectations admirably.
Volume is always handled perfectly; the concert scenes are as impressive as they're meant to be, without being overbearing. The balance of the music with the other elements of the soundtrack is handled deftly, so that the scene can switch seamlessly from the full-out glory of an opera in full swing to dialogue, even when the dialogue or voiceover is concurrent with the music. Mozart's music takes center stage on many occasions, but it uplifts rather than upstages what's going on in the film.
The track has an admirable richness and depth to it, with never a hint of harshness at any level (even in Mozart's braying laugh). Dialogue is crystal-clear, and the music is full and beautiful.
Amadeus Director's Cut is a perfect example of high-quality (rather than just high-quantity) special features on a DVD. On the first disc of the two-disc set, along with the film, is an audio commentary track from director Milos Forman and writer Peter Shaffer. On the second disc there a the "making-of" documentary and a theatrical trailer, both of which are presented in anamorphic widescreen. The documentary is an hour long, and offers a truly substantial look at the making of the film, far more than the typical behind-the-scenes promotional featurette.
At first, the extra content might not seem like enough to account for an entire second disc, but on further reflection it shows a wise choice by the production team. The first DVD is loaded as it is, with the three-hour film and three audio tracks (5.1, 2.0, and commentary), and considering the length of the documentary, the producers evidently decided not to risk cramming everything onto one disc and degrading the film's video quality with potential compression problems.
The one special feature that was featured on the original release, an isolated music soundtrack, is not included in the extras on Amadeus Director's Cut. However, I would say that it's not a great loss, considering that Mozart's music can be had on many audio CDs, and Sir Neville Marriner's rendition of the music for Amadeus has been released separately as a CD as well.
Amadeus is a masterpiece of a film, one that belongs in the collection of any lover of film. The new Director's Cut is a fantastic DVD as well, one that brings together the definitive version of the film, an excellent video and audio transfer, and outstanding special features.