October 01, 1984 12:00 PM

Director Milos Forman, riding on waves of Mozart’s incomparable music, makes something undeniably thrilling out of Peter Shaffer’s 1980 Broadway smash. But admirers of the show, about a fictional battle between God and 18th-century Italian composer Antonio Salieri over a prodigy named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, must be prepared to make some adjustments for the film version. The play, turning on the conflict between Salieri’s mediocrity and Mozart’s then unrecognized genius, was faster, funnier and innately more theatrical. Shaffer hasn’t simply adapted his work for the screen; he has rigorously rethought it. There’s a new central character: the voice of God in the form of Mozart’s music. Onstage, the music was an afterthought piped through tinny theater speakers. Onscreen, music coordinator John Strauss and conductor Neville Marriner make the Mozart melodies speak more eloquently than any of the characters. The result is a trade-off: a feast for the ear that wreaks havoc with dramatic flow. Forman doesn’t help the pace, using a musty flashback technique to frame the film. But once the story begins in earnest, with court composer Salieri’s first meeting with Mozart in Vienna, Forman guns his engines with all the brio he deployed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The location work in Prague and the Tyl Theater, where Mozart himself conducted the premiere of his Don Giovanni 200 years ago, pays off not just in beauty but also as inspiration for the actors. Though Shaffer and Forman sometimes use irritatingly anachronistic dialogue (“Show me your stuff”) and mixed accents, the film is cunningly cast without star names. Jeffrey Jones, who appeared on Broadway with David Bowie in The Elephant Man, is wickedly splendid as Emperor Joseph II, Elizabeth (Natural Enemies) Berridge brings surprising strength to the one-dimensional role of Mozart’s scheming wife, and stage actor Roy Dotrice is a mix of fire and ice as Mozart’s ramrod father. But Amadeus centers—as it must—on Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham, two American actors rising marvelously to the challenge of their careers. Abraham’s Salieri moves from unholy glee at sabotaging God’s “obscene creature” to racking guilt. Abraham, so good as the nervous gangster in Scarface, is a master of nuance. Hulce, the nerd in National Lampoon’s Animal House, is Mozart. His flat voice and open face are as American as the Nebraska prairie. And the way he exaggerates Mozart’s hyena laugh and childish gestures sometimes ties a tin can to his performance. But Hulce grows in the part and on the audience. His deathbed scene, as he dictates the Requiem to Salieri, is the screen’s most successful attempt to date at depicting genius. With Mozart’s magical music swirling around them, Hulce and Abraham share a dual triumph in a film that stands as a provocative and prodigious achievement. (PG)

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