Probably my favourite movie of all time. This is a complete steal of TheJamesMadison’s discussion of Amadeus at Ace of Spades. If you don’t know the movie, it’s time you did yourself a favour. Reading what Madison wrote will not spoil a second of the actual film.
I’ve revisited the first six films in my personal Top Ten of all time chronologically from The Passion of Joan of Arc to Apocalypse Now, so now we get to the 80s, the single most represented decade in my list. And the first movie in that decade is Milos Forman’s Amadeus.
Re-Introductions and Introductions
When I first discovered Amadeus, I loved it, and I showed it to my father. We watched it together (one very nice thing about him was that he’s willing to watch almost whatever I try to put in front of him), and his reaction was much more tempered than mine. He said, “You’ll like it less as you get older.” Not that he didn’t like the film, but he just didn’t love it like I did.
I didn’t watch this movie for at least seven years until this week when I finally revisited it. I was a bit terrified. Was my dad right? Would I finally rewatch the film and decide that it’s simply not as good as my younger self had determined?
Thankfully, I loved the film as much as before, and that started with one particular moment about ten minutes into the film. Salieri, having attempted suicide, is sitting alone in a cell in a sanitarium playing some small tunes on a harpsicord. A priest comes to hear his confession. Salieri wants nothing to do with the priest until the priest insists that all men are equal in God’s eyes. That attracts Salieri’s attention.
He starts by trying to draw the priest into his story by playing some of Salieri’s old tunes, music that the priest should be familiar with because he studied music in Vienna in his youth. The first tune passes over the priest’s head, much to Salieri’s distaste. And then we see this:
It’s a simple cut to a tracking shot, and it completely pulls me into the film.
Salieri plays the first few bars of the music. He takes his fingers off the keys to revel in the sound in his head. We, of course, hear it, but the priest does not. The cut takes us to a live performance of the music sung by a woman, gaudily dressed, on stage. The camera pulls back to reveal a man conducting an orchestra. As this man turns, the camera changes focus from the woman to him, revealing Salieri, decades younger, and at the height of his influence and power.
It’s such a simple cut and dolly, and it sells two things. The first is the basic structure of the movie. We’re going to see what he’s talking about. The other is character based. His telling of his story really starts with Salieri at the height of his influence and popularity. He’s adored by music lovers, and he’s firm in his commitment to his art. That simple cut and dolly puts such a smile on my face every time.
Antonio Salieri is the protagonist of the film, and Mozart is the antagonist. Not to say good guy and bad guy, but Salieri is obviously the one driving the plot in the film. He hinders and helps Mozart, driving him from success to failure.
Mozart, though, is a delight and played by Tom Hulce (who lost the Best Actor Oscar to F. Murray Abraham for his performance as Salieri). He’s an effortless genius who’s been spoiled to the point that he can usually get away with any manner of vulgarity. This is evident when he first approaches the Emperor Joseph II and admits that his idea for an opera (in German!) he will set in a harem. The courtiers around the emperor gasp at the mere thought, but the emperor hides a small smile. He’s obviously entertained by Mozart’s brashness, eventually giving in to every wish Mozart has in terms of his art.
The scene that that plays out in is where Salieri begins to truly hate Mozart. Not only is Mozart vulgar, as opposed to Salieri’s own reserved modesty (which he offers up to God, along with his chastity, in order to praise Him through music), but Mozart is also effortlessly gifted. The second scene that I want to highlight is below (the clip is chopped up from a larger scene, but it contains everything necessary for this discussion):
Salieri worked hard on that little march of his. He played with the harpsicord for every note, trying to craft something as an appropriate welcome to the wunderkind. Then, presented with the music sheet, Mozart waves it off. He’s already memorized it after one hearing. Not only does he then prove that he can recreate Salieri’s simple tune perfectly, but he, on the fly, improves it tremendously (eventually turning it into something that actually comes from The Marriage of Figaro). Salieri had worked diligently and reverentially to produce the piece that this creature (as Salieri calls Mozart) instantly turns into something so much better.
Salieri’s dismissive attitude towards the priest’s contention that all men are equal in God’s eyes comes into full view in an instant. Salieri isn’t equal to Mozart. God obviously prefers Mozart considering the difference in talent and perceived holiness between the two men.
The last scene I want to highlight is the writing of the requiem mass as Salieri assists Mozart after the production of The Magic Flute (quick aside, Ingmar Bergman made an absolutely marvelous production of The Magic Flute, and you should find a copy at your local library).
Salieri, a lover of music who understands the stark contrast between his ability and Mozart’s, wants Mozart to write his own Requiem mass and then to take credit for it. Left alone with him, Mozart’s wife having left Vienna in disgust at Mozart’s inability to focus on making money in favor of potentially empty promises, Salieri dictates Mozart’s work. Together, they compose a few bars of music for every instrument in the piece. They build it layer by layer. Voices, horns of different types, strings. It all comes together, sometimes just sounding like noise, but once it all comes together the audience can hear the confluence of the different pieces to create the harmonious music in its entirety.
The fact that Salieri is behind and can’t understand until it’s spelled out for him is marvelous. He knows enough to aid Mozart, but he’s obviously completely out of his depth. Mozart seems to speak in a different language the deeper into the composition they get. Let’s take a look!
The Movie Entire
The movie itself is obviously much more than the three scenes I’ve highlighted, and what really carries it is Salieri himself. He’s such a wonderfully complex character who balances his hatred of Mozart the person with his love of Mozart the artist.
He often lies to Mozart. He lies about trying to help Mozart at court, only to be thwarted by circumstance. He lies about how he’ll try to help him with an appointment. But he can never lie about how he feels regarding Mozart’s music. Whenever Mozart asks Salieri what he thought of Mozart’s newest work, all pretense falls from Salieri and he tells the honest truth, that it was magnificent.
In addition to Salieri, Constanze, Mozart’s wife, looks like someone who would be completely out of her depth in regards to anything serious, but the fact that she’s the one who sees things clearly offers Mozart a firm base from which to operate. When she leaves, Mozart loses all of the support she offered and falls into the hands of Schikaneder and Salieri.
The court is a joyful little comic delight. Most of them are as opposed to Mozart as Salieri. They use every ounce of their power to keep Mozart in check, but the Emperor Joseph will walk in and completely overturn anything with the smallest of suggestions (“Let me hear the scene with the music.”) that put Mozart back on top.
The movie really is not what one would expect from a three hour film about a classical composer (side note: The Director’s Cut really is a Director’s Cut and probably is the superior version of the film). It’s light and joyful where it needs to be. It’s got surprising contemporary touches like Mozart’s pink wig which evokes mid-80s punk rock. The movie really does fly by, never feeling like three hours, and is one of the most fun times I ever have had at the movies, so to speak.
A Small Note on Historical (In)Accuracy
Thank you, Lisa. If I didn’t think of you as a joyless scold before, I certainly do now.
Some may remember, but I don’t insist much on historical accuracy from films. I don’t expect history lessons from movies, but I do expect to be entertained.
Amadeus is bad history. Mozart had six kids, not one. Salieri didn’t help Mozart write the Requiem. Salieri wasn’t a celibate. There’s so much in this film that’s not historically accurate.
And yet, the movie is filtered through Salieri the character. It’s a telling of the events through an unreliable narrator. It really gives the film credence to be as historically inaccurate as it wants to be. And, probably because of its complete disregard for actual history, the movie is a fantastic entertainment and explores what it means to be an artist.