His funeral - imagine it! The Cathedral, all Vienna sitting there. His coffin, Mozart's little coffin in the middle. And suddenly in that silence, music. A divine music bursts out over them all, a great Mass of Death: Requiem Mass for Wolfgang Mozart, composed by his devoted friend Antonio Salieri. What sublimity! What depth! What passion in the music! Salieri has been touched by God at last. And God, forced to listen. Powerless - powerless to stop it. I at the end, for once, laughing at Him.
So declared Antonio Salieri, “Patron Saint of All Mediocrities,” friend of Mozart and mutual enemy of God in the impassioned and penetrating Amadeus. Milos Forman’s Amadeus film version of a Peter Shaffer play of the same name based on a novel take on a rumor originating from the life of Mozart shook the world and nabbed eight Oscars the following year, including Best Picture. After being reproduced in many forms, could it even portray Mozart as truthful and powerful as the man really was? Frankly, no. No retelling of this genius’ life can ever surpass the depth and power of Mozart’s original story and life, but Amadeus gets awfully close to it. After reading the stage play and the film’s screenplay, I felt that this movie was simply the luckiest achievement in film ever. Unlike other great films, Amadeus is “fragile” in a sense, for, taking the words of Salieri out of context, “Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase, and the structure would fall.”
The music, one of the best aspects of Amadeus (supplied entirely from Mozart’s own compositions and performed by the prolific St. Martin in the Fields with conductor Sir Neville Marriner), creates a perfect dramatic effect while sampling a conception of Mozart’s genius. Now, after viewing Forman’s film, I visualize Mozart’s music – the drama, the context, and the inspiration behind the music. Listening to Mozart’s music now, each note and phrase triggers a memory of certain shots and emotions from the amazing insight Forman and Shaffer gave in Amadeus.
Retelling his story to a priest, Salieri recounted his conceited boyish prayer with God: “Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate Your glory through music and be celebrated myself. Make me famous through the world, dear God. Make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote. In return, I will give You my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life, Amen." Years later, Salieri, now an Austrian court composer in the service of Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones), saw with sense of betrayal God’s creation of Mozart. He knew Mozart’s music was great, and his own was not. This fact alone did not worry him; it was the fact that Mozart was a coarse and vulgar boy. Often, he had talked and prayed to a cross hanging on his wall, but once his contempt overflowed, he gave it one last prayer and gazed at it once last time – ablaze in his fireplace:
Because You will not enter me, with all my need for you; because You scorn my attempts at virtue; because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the Incarnation; because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You! I swear it! I will hinder and harm Your creature on earth as far as I am able. I will ruin Your Incarnation.”
Ironically, although Salieri named himself virtuous and worthy of being God’s “Incarnation,” the vulgar Mozart held a closer relationship to God -- even having a certain fear and respect of Him, of which Salieri had none. But taking on the action he had sworn to do, he held Mozart in his deadly grasp, gradually sucking away his money, sanity, life, and finally, his music.
With a perfect balance of words, Shaffer crafted the infamous Salieri, whom F. Murray Abraham played with intensity, and surprised us with his remarkable transition between a bitter, yet free, elderly Salieri and a quiet and calculating, thickly accented younger Salieri. No one -- not even I -- would have thought the two Salieris were played by the same actor. Abraham speaks Shaffer’s words with such resonance and a sense of illustriousness that they stand out in our minds, seeming as though his words alone had an impact on history.
Though both the theatrical (PG) and director’s cut (R) versions are inherently identical, the director’s cut offers more material and, along with it, more content worries. Other than the content, Amadeus, if understood properly, provides emotionally depressing elements along with a disheartening emotional war between God and Salieri. Both versions contain usages of obscenity and scatological humor as well as overall vulgarity coming from Mozart. The director’s cut, with twenty extra minutes, shows Mozart’s loyal but worryingly dedicated wife attempting adultery in a struggle for money and also some nudity in Salieri’s insane asylum.
Never before or after Amadeus had a movie effectively portray an iconic classical music figure without ruining the drama and comedy. Most of us view Mozart as an indomitable demigod-like music figure -- even if we know as a fact that Mozart was crude, barmy and ill-mannered -- but we could never comprehend that Mozart was an actual living vulgarity. Indifferently, Forman and Shaffer tore to shreds the demi-god character of Mozart and gave room for him to shine his crudity. Many have complained about the historical inaccuracies of Amadeus, especially the ending scene where Salieri takes a dictation from Mozart for his Requiem. However, as Shaffer explained in the introduction of his stage play, he changed the ending for dramatic effects. Amadeus is not a biopic; it is a historical-fiction exploring the realms of humanity, hatred and God.
Forman and Shaffer left many varied and clear-cut messages in Amadeus. Some say Salieri’s downfall was caused by either his jealousy or the haughty demand in his childhood prayer, explaining why God attempted to destroy Salieri – both great points and interpretations. But I believe that the explanation of God’s wrath on Salieri is more objective. In his childhood prayer, he prayed for talent, and “In return, I will give You my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life…” But as none of those qualities were evident in the film, he earned that punishment. But wasn’t Salieri’s request for a righteous man to have the musical talent an honorable request? Perhaps. And perhaps God did fulfill that request, just through a different, yet pious and talented, Austrian: Franz Joseph Haydn.