'Amadeus' - glimpses of the sublime amid the scurrilous.

In an early scene of ''Amadeus,'' the composer Salieri walks through a party searching for Mozart, whom he has never met. He adores Mozart's music and wonders if he'll be able to pick the genius out of a crowd, since his sublime talent must somehow be outwardly visible. It's quite a shock when the only visible thing turns out to be Mozart's yen for a young woman he's chased under the banquet table and is entertaining with smutty word games.

If such demythologizing were all it had to offer, ''Amadeus'' would be a minor film. Fortunately, its portrait of the artist as a young scamp is only the starting point for one of the year's most imposing movies - a rowdy, funny, suspenseful, and sometimes very moving visit with two fascinating personalities: one an uncouth prodigy, the other an earnest second-rater who never quite understands why somebody else should get all the glory.

Credit for the picture's success goes largely to director Milos Forman and screenwriter Peter Shaffer, who adapted his own Broadway hit. Praise also goes to Miroslav Ondricek, who glowingly photographed the action, and - by no means least - to the real-life Mozart, whose compositions provide much of the drama's momentum.

Although the semifictional plot centers on Mozart, this is no ''biopic'' about him alone. It's just as much the story of Salieri, who might have been the premiere composer of his day if not for the young rogue who kept upstaging him.

Salieri develops a jealousy that's far from ordinary. Since he always acknowledged God as the source of his talent, he now blames God for giving a bigger talent to his rival. This pious but misguided man just can't imagine why the most divine musical gift should be entrusted to a scruffy vessel like Mozart - and since the puzzle eventually drives him crazy, we witness it in long flashbacks, framed by Salieri's dotty reminiscences in a madhouse.

The other main thread of the film, aside from Salieri's bizarre feud, is the rise and fall of Mozart himself. We see his introduction to the Emperor's court, the controversies sparked by his knockabout behavior, the effects of his dissolute living - and of Salieri's machinations against him - and the decline into poor physical and mental health that preceded his death at 35 years. Scenes from his operas serve as signposts along the way, fusing his personal and artistic development.

While some of the material in ''Amadeus'' is sordid, the film rises above this by stressing the musical genius that far transcended the circumstances of Mozart's life. Even poor Salieri provides some of the movie's most exquisite moments by helplessly forgetting his spite in throes of rapture over the master's latest score. At such junctures the film shows a solid sense of what truly matters in human experience - not the splendor or squalor that ebb and flow through a lifetime, but the sublimity that may be glimpsed through artistic insight as profound as Mozart's.

The cast of ''Amadeus'' is mostly excellent. With the director's connivance, Tom Hulce overplays Mozart at first (his horselaugh would better suit a mindless farce) but digs deep into the role during its later, darker moments. F. Murray Abraham is a passionate Salieri. Roy Dotrice, as Mozart's father, has just the right blend of paternal and dictatorial instincts. More quietly, Jeffrey Jones gives one of the year's most superb performances as the Emperor Joseph II, a music-loving monarch who approaches life and art with the cautious passion of an accountant at income-tax time.

Other contributors include Patrizia Von Brandenstein, who designed the handsome production; Twyla Tharp, who staged the choreography and opera scenes; and Neville Marriner, the veteran conductor who supervised the music. The film was shot in Czechoslovakia and Italy. Another 'Carmen'

At last, here's a ''Carmen'' that's really a ''Carmen.''

The new film by Francesco Rosi is a direct adaptation of Bizet's opera. It isn't a Spanish-dance spinoff like the ''Carmen'' by Carlos Saura. Or an updated variation like ''First Name: Carmen,'' by Jean-Luc Godard. Or a scaled-down chamber version like ''Le Tragedie de Carmen,'' staged by Peter Brook.

Fidelity doesn't guarantee quality, however. Judging the new ''Carmen'' not by its music but as a motion picture, it's pretty bad. Though a few outdoor scenes are visually effective, most of the going is drab, flat, and clumsily designed. The performers try hard for ''cinematic'' acting, but never pull it off. Placido Domingo and Ruggero Raimondi retain some dignity as Don Jose and Escamillo, respectively, but are hardly memorable. In the title role, Julia Migenes-Johnson keeps striking lascivious poses that are more embarrassing than erotic.

As more serious directors try making opera movies, it's becoming more clear that traditional approaches to filmmaking - steeped in romantic realism - simply don't jibe with the stylized artifices of opera. The cleverest movie directors throw away those traditions when dealing with opera, giving us the fluid ''Parsifal'' of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg and the intimate ''Magic Flute'' of Ingmar Bergman. In tackling ''Carmen,'' filmmaker Rosi has fallen into the same literalistic trap that snared the ''Don Giovanni'' of Joseph Losey and ''La Traviata'' of Franco Zeffirrelli, though Zeffirrelli dug himself partly out with the heedless flamboyance of his visual style.

Musically the new ''Carmen'' is reasonably strong, if the speakers of your local theater are ditto. Lorin Maazel capably conducted the Orchestre National de France.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.