Its radical approach rendered nearly invisible due to its enormous popularity, Milos Forman’s much lauded adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play embraces a particular kind of “realistic” revisionism to rework Mozart’s biography as a narrative doorway to his music. Using Shaffer’s theatrical stylization “as a springboard for another vision,” Forman disregards historical accuracy for a “fantasia on the theme of Mozart and Salieri.” Forman creates his own mythic, naturalist opera both situated within and transcending its own time and place through sumptuous and meticulous period set design paired with more contemporary language and behavior. Just as Mozart makes a case to Emperor Joseph II for setting the drama of common mortals in The Marriage of Figaro to the decadent otherworldiness of opera, Forman persuasively combines the ordinary with the extraordinary, the comic and the grotesque, the torment and tragedy, and all the natural and supernatural forces that seem to conspire when making great works of art. The central “gods”—Mozart the Boy Genius and Salieri, the seething “Patron Saint of Mediocrity”—are also empathetic outsiders with relatable neuroses. The preternaturally gifted Mozart can be kind of a punk (anachronistically acknowledged in his bleached blond hair beneath the wig); broke and living with his wife in a messy apartment, he drinks and parties and defies authority. He can also be unnervingly childish and arrogant. Meanwhile, the duplicitous, vengeful, outwardly subservient Salieri is also funny, sensitive and painfully self-aware. The entire cast of primarily unknown American and British character actors speak in their own accents and disappear into seemingly custom-tailored roles.
To recreate 18th century Vienna, Czech expat Forman was allowed to return to Prague with its streets and buildings—including the Tyl Theater in which Don Giovanni originally premiered—largely unaffected by modernity. Both the film and the operas within the film are lavishly staged and costumed—bathed in a delicate color palette that darkens and fades as psychic and physical distress take over the composer—and buttressed, above all, by the music. The film succeeded in not only introducing Mozart’s music to young audiences, but also conveying its complexity and emotional density—sometimes quite literally through Salieri’s angst-ridden, awe-struck commentary. In keeping with the enduring accessibility of Mozart’s compositions, Forman’s extravagant, successful experiment continues to defy age… and mediocrity.