God Said, “Ha!”
With Amadeus, director Milos Forman is back in the world he explored in his previous Oscar winner, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: the madhouse.
Is Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, in a virtuoso performance he has yet to match) insane? Amadeus opens with an old, bitter Salieri living out his last days in an asylum, where he’s been relegated following a suicide attempt. The film’s story, and the story of his life, unfolds as he confesses to a priest how, and why, he killed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Salieri’s world is in the salons and palaces and opera houses of Vienna, “city of musicians,” in the late 18th century. As court composer to Emperor Josef (Jeffrey Jones), he is the most popular, most successful, most famous composer in Europe — until he is eclipsed by the “boastful, lusty, smutty” Mozart (Tom Hulce, delightfully unrestrained), the child prodigy from Salzberg now a young man working in Vienna. Music is all to Salieri, and Mozart produces “a music I’d never heard, filled with such longing… the voice of God.” And yet it galls him that a “giggling, dirty-minded creature” would be so chosen by the Almighty.
Salieri takes this as a personal insult from God. “God gave me that longing” for music, he tells the priest, “and then made me mute.” He’s slowly driven insane (or is he?) by the fact that while he cannot match Mozart’s genius for composing, Salieri ironically has ability enough to recognize and appreciate the music that he himself will never be capable of producing. As the years pass, he finds himself more and more astounded by Mozart’s “miraculous” music, and yet hate for the wild young man also grows. While watching Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a dark opera inspired by the death of his domineering father, Salieri conceives of a way to destroy his unknowing rival and tormentor.
And yet one event demonstrates that it’s not just jealousy of Mozart’s talent that ires Salieri. It’s not until he discovers that Mozart has bedded the beautiful opera singer that Salieri has admired and lusted after but never pursued that his hatred solidifies into a vow to ruin God’s incarnation. Salieri’s upper-class Vienna is a licentious, sexually liberated world. Revealing clothing is the norm — men in tight knee breeches, women in cleavage-revealing gowns — and wigs and makeup accentuate the features of both sexes. It’s not just Mozart’s undisciplined genius that maddens Salieri, but the younger man’s exuberance and joie de vivre sharply contrasting with a passion and longing in Salieri that never transcends the intellectual. The opera singer he wanted was not beyond his reach — he just never reached for her. And Mozart did.
Although based on available knowledge, the tale Amadeus tells is speculative — but because it’s the perhaps-mad Salieri relating it, doubt as to its veracity only works to add an extra dimension to the film. Was Salieri mad enough to kill the object of his envy, or was murder as much beyond him as the music he ached to produce and the life he could not live?
This is one of the finest films ever made, at once tragic and heartbreaking, joyful and raunchy. The magnificent, passionate music alone makes it worth watching. The layered story and complex, deeply wounded characters make it worth revisiting again and again.
Best Picture 1984
AFI 100: #53
unforgettable movie moment:
On one hearing — a badly performed one at that — Mozart plays back, with improvements, a march of Salieri’s, astounding the emperor and his advisors and infuriating and embarrassing Salieri.
previous Best Picture:
1983: Terms of Endearment
next Best Picture:
1985: Out of Africa
previous AFI 100 film:
52: From Here to Eternity
next AFI 100 film:
54: All Quiet on the Western Front
viewed at home on a small screen