directed by Milos Forman
(Orion, 1984)

Immortal Beloved
directed by Bernard Rose
(Columbia, 1994)

They are among the world's most famous composers, and yet few of us know much about their lives. What many of us do know, we owe to a pair of films: Amadeus and Immortal Beloved ... and yet neither of them is truly a biography. Both take a healthy license with the facts, playing up some interesting but unlikely theories as facts. And both films are, ultimately, tragic.

The first film pays homage to the young genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The latter, to Ludwig van Beethoven. Although their lives were very different, both experienced grave tragedies and, perhaps, a similar passion and madness.

Amadeus is in many parts a comedy, and Mozart is appropriately played by Tom Hulce (at the time of filming known best for his role in Animal House). Mozart was brash, bawdy and impetuous, and the film seizes on his mad zest for life and music. You also see his more callous side, his obsession and his terror, as well as his love for his wife, Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge), and his fear of his father, Leopold (Roy Dotrice). In the end, it's a tragedy -- a gifted life cut short.

The film sets Mozart against the foil of court composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), a jealous competitor. Although Salieri's plot and intrigue are nothing but a plausible fiction, it certainly casts a dark shadow over Mozart's untimely illness and death. In the movie, Abraham's Salieri is reserved and sneering, while Hulce plays Mozart most frequently as giddy, at times brooding, always full of passion for the role. The film is colorful and exciting, and Mozart's music, used as a soundtrack throughout, is scored to great effect.

Beethoven's death and lavish funeral, which begins Immortal Beloved, is rather different from the pauper's grave given without ceremony to Mozart. The film is darker and more slowly paced, the story a mystery -- an effort to identify Beethoven's "immortal beloved" to whom he bequeathed his music and fortune. Unfortunately, the maestro attached no name to his final testament and his true heir was never found.

In the film, Beethoven's secretary, Anton Schindler (Jeroen Krabbe), strives to learn her name and fulfill Beethoven's final wish. His devotion to this task, despite his own abuses at Beethoven's hand, is a testament to a sort of loyalty that goes beyond friendship.

Beethoven, whose music was considered by many at the time to be dangerously passionate and unsuitable for the young, was a brooding man known for wild moods and a violent temper. Gary Oldman, as Beethoven, delivers the maestro with flair, seething with rage at humanity, despairing at his most terrible infirmity -- deafness -- and showing, at rare moments, his tender side, for instance after the death of a lover's son. His highs and lows of emotion are bestowed on Karl, his young nephew and ward (played at different ages by Marco Hofschneider and Matthew North).

We see Beethoven's life unfold through a series of flashbacks narrated by the important women in his life: Giulietta Guicciardi (Valeria Golino), Anna Marie Erdody (Isabella Rossellini) and Johanna Reiss (Johanna ter Steege). And, again, you can't fault the soundtrack, which was composed almost entirely by Beethoven and used to underscore the emotions and events of the film with great sensitivity.

While Mozart's finale in Amadeus is one of pitiful decline, his encore an insane man's bitter laughter, Beethoven's end in Immortal Beloved is far more satisfying. Although resting on the tragedy of a lost opportunity, the debut of his Ninth Symphony is a spectacular moment, both of music and emotion. It is hard not to forgive him any transgressions after such a triumph.

But both films are excellent examples of musical biographies merged with historical fiction, culminating in a grand cinematic experience not to be missed or quickly forgotten.

review by
Tom Knapp

17 March 2001

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