by Laurent Kelly
Amadeus (1984) – Director: Milos Forman Adapted Screenplay (from his own play): Peter Shaffer Starring: F.Murray Abrahams, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge OSCAR COUNT (8) – Best Picture, Director, Leading Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, Art Direction, Make-up, Sound.
What makes Amadeus so intriguing from a narrative perspective is that it doesn’t show us the story through the eyes of the genius but rather the viewpoint of someone who is deeply envious and desperare to obtain this genius. As such the conflict feels a lot more identifiable in spite of the fact that Salieri is still a god among mortals but unfortunately for him very mortal in comparison to the godlike immortality that is Mozart’s music.
The first thing that the film solidly accomplishes is to show us the value of music in the life of the protagonist. As a boy Salieri’s life is ruled with an iron fist by his father and he isn’t allowed to pursue his love for music. So that we fully come to terms with just how precious this obsession is, Salieri actually rejoices in the death of his own father just because it means he will now have the freedom to chase his hearts desire. Salieri is overjoyed at first at the prospect of meeting Mozart because he is anticipating the maker of such delightful sounds to have reached a level of eloquence and decorum that he can look up to. When he comes to realise however that the man is a self-indulgent, rather spoilt, child-like brat (at least how the film portrays him) Saleri comes face to face with the harsh nature of reality in that genius is not about how you dress, talk or present yourself, it is just an in built force and Salieri realises in this one crushing moment that Mozart has something that he just doesn’t and quite simply never will have. Salieri was anticipating superficial clues that might assist his own quest for musical greatness but instead he comes face to face with what he sees as God’s cruel design.
As Salieri turns against God and begins to heinously plot against Mozart the film comments on the manipulative nature of religion and the manner in which people can use this idea of a greater being in order to both satisfy and justify their actions. This rebelling against the lord is the path that the the film’s protagonist decides to take but what remains fascinating is that Salieri becomes torn over the concept that he is helping to destroy something that also gives him great pleasure. Mozart’s talent is the embodiment of God’s powers and by destroying the man he is reveling in taking away something from God who he hates for not having blessed him with similar gifts. In for what my money is the film’s most powerful scene we see Salieri achingly describe Mozart’s music and the joy it brings him. Here we see the conflict on full display, how Salieri is unable to avoid the power of Mozart’s music and the impact it has on his emotions yet at the same time a raging hatred as such sounds remind him of his own mediocrity.
I think this mindset is very relatable as I know for a fact that every time I’m inspired by someone or something there is always that natural level of resentment that comes with such praise. Salieri however shows what happens when you allow yourself to be possessed and haunted by the fact that certain things just aren’t meant to be and you one becomes unable to appreciate the blessings that life has given them. For example Salieri is unable to appreciate the fact that some musicians will feel hopelessly inadequate in comparison to his gifts just as he feels inadequate to Mozart. Accepting that we have a limit can be damaging to ones ego and when Salieri realises that he can’t make friends with genius, he decides to become its enemy instead.
Obviously all these thematic conflicts would be nowhere near as compelling were it not for F.Murray Abraham’s delightful lead performance which deservedly won him an Oscar and which I consider to be one of the all time great screen portrayals and which also begs the question as to why he wasn’t able to maintain such a high level of greatness throughout his career.
Maybe that’s because the film is being directed by Milos Forman who is brilliant at handling performers and as the film shows fantastic at piecing together a film’s overall tone. Here he quite expertly brings to life the epic nature of the opera and admirably shows the composers to be the rock and roll stars of their day. There is a tendency to be quite stuffy and rigid when dealing with historical pieces but Amadeus basically highlights that we are the same people only in a different environment. For example there are still the raving parties, tomfoolery and immaculately prepared nights out only back then audiences were genuinely treated to music as an art form as opposed to say going out to watch a pop concert in 2011. Forman doesn’t try to differentiate between these two acts in regards to mood or energy however, he merely shows us a different culture and time with similar styles of behaviour.
The film is also majestic in its use of music. It would have been easy to just play various Mozart compositions here, there and everywhere but instead we are actually shown the inspiration behind the music and the manner in which it comes together to form a cohesive whole. This is no better example of this than in the scene in which Salieri helps Mozart write Requiem and we observe Mozart going through the notes in his head, imagining each sound and trying to focus on the rhythm as we see the genius building in detailed fashion.
There is a real craftsmanship on display in Amadeus and the film’s unforgettable sets, costumes, music and performances are as accomplished as the thematic conflicts that drive the story forward. Whilst the real Mozart may not have been too enarmoured with the portrayal of his various personality traits, he could surely have no arguments about how his gifts are reflected on the screen.