Amadeus (1984)

Dir. Milos Forman. Starring F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge

There are two kinds of people in the world (here it comes): the people who need validation and people who don’t. It’s not merely that Salieri (Abraham) and Mozart (Hulce) are both the first type in a job where that external validation is all that matters if you want to eat, and in a time where it is practically impossible to be reevaluated before you die. It is that they are 1A and 1B on the list of people who need that external validation, and that there is no person who could give that validation who would ever choose to give it to them. In Amadeus, Mozart’s death such an early age is the product of his father’s death; when Leopold (Roy Dotrice) dies, there is no one who can fulfill him any longer, and so Mozart kills time before he kills himself. When Leopold returns home to Salzburg without the son he has been commanded by the Prince-Archbishop to bring in tow, he has made it clear that he does not approve of Wolfgang’s lifestyle, his pretty but common wife (Berridge), or his recklessness with money. Leopold dies without forgiving his son for being historically talented, famous, and in his mid-twenties, a quality he has in common with most of the people who call into talk radio shows. Dying at a distance, withholding that pardon which might have saved his son, is what makes Mozart’s tailspin so treacherous. In the absence of his father’s ability to approve or disapprove, Mozart begins to look for ways to feel some kind of warmth, or at least a distraction. He takes to drinking in a serious way, and then takes medicine, and in the words of the maid (Cynthia Nixon), that makes him worse. He spends more time with Schikaneder (Simon Callow) and his company of theater people than with his family. He even begins to look for the kindness of the people who he made such a show of not caring about in the years before. When he wakes up a little after having passed out during The Magic Flute, he sees that Salieri is still with him, and he thanks him for coming to see The Magic Flute; “You are the only colleague who did,” he tells him. Salieri’s entire life, at this point, rests in his cryptic responses: “I would never miss anything you had written…I tell you, you are the greatest composer known to me.”

Salieri, of course, has looked rather higher than Leopold Mozart of Salzburg for his validation. He has, from a young age, sought out the favor of God himself. (Of all the plays become movies, I don’t know there is a line I miss more in adaptation than the reference to “the God of Bargains” in Shaffer’s script which, alas, cannot be found in Shaffer’s screenplay.) He believes he has it, as he rises from nothing in Lombardy to court composer to Emperor Joseph (Jeffrey Jones) in Vienna, the most respected musical mind in the most exciting musical city in the world. He believes, too, that God helps him to find his melodies; he putters around on his harpsichord, thanking God for helping him fix up a clunky passage; he thanks God again, with a very, very cranky expression on his face, after Mozart does a little more work on than God did. (In a movie that basically agrees with Mozart’s assessment of Salieri’s work, limited as our exposure to it is in the film, as a “musical idiot,” there is something that really does work about including that march. Salieri has a good idea there, nondescript as it seems to be. Mozart inventing “Non piu andrai” on the fly with it is the proof that Salieri is adequate enough for a room without Mozart in it, but that he is completely out of his league as soon as Mozart arrives.) For some time, Salieri tries to decide God’s intentions, and when he reasons out that God is mocking his seriousness by throwing this totally unserious and musically perfect nimrod into the mix, he decides he’s going to give up on validation. He places his crucifix on the fire and resolves to “block” God, and to block God’s “incarnation” to the best of his abilities. God has the last laugh, as God is wont to do—Salieri lives long enough to watch his music disappear while Mozart’s only grows in renown—but Salieri manages to do something spectacular. As God refused to validate him (“If he didn’t want me to serve him with music, why implant the desire like a lust in my body?”) he refuses to validate God, and in so doing he finds out that God can be thwarted. One hardly needs to be that poor, unprepared priest (Richard Frank) to be a little frightened and dismayed at the glee with which Salieri, by now old and looking a little molten in his wheelchair, discusses the way in which he intended to lay low a man who more and more gave Salieri his trust.

Yet it’s the spoken meaning of his affirmation to Mozart, by now lying on his deathbed, which is especially interesting to me, his understanding of a great musical mind which is on the surface unencumbered by total jealousy. Salieri does not really have to lie to Mozart in order to win him over, and he only has to tell him the truth about his belief in his music to convince him that he is on his side; he has only to consider the “absolute beauty” of Mozart’s work to say what Mozart needs to hear. The most honest moments of the picture are in what Salieri has to say about Mozart’s music, and his first encounter with it. He looks over the score for Mozart’s Serenade for Winds, and decades later reminisces to Father Vogler about what he saw there. It is one of my favorite scenes in any movie, in its own way as “simple, almost comic” as the music that it’s describing. Salieri sits in the chair, closing his eyes and raising his hands, and the music simply falls into place on top of it. This is not diegetic music, but it certainly is playing for Salieri, who if nothing else is a good enough musician to know how something sounds when it’s read off the page, and thus it is playing for us as well, and it is exactly as Salieri implies. This is beautiful music, and the exegesis is straightforward, and the acting is exactly suited to both. Later on in the movie, during another one of my favorite scenes, Mozart drops the word “shit” on the emperor and his hangers-on to some scolding. “I’m a vulgar man,” he says by way of apology to the emperor, “but my music is not.” We know already—it’s Mozart, we knew going into the theater—but it is nice to get an object lesson like the one we received from Salieri early in the process.

It’s funny that both Abraham and Hulce are playing two people in this movie. Abraham, of course, gets an older and a younger version to play. The older man is loquacious but gravelly, still from the waist down, disheveled although still wearing the remnants of some fine clothes from years past, which of course only serves to make him look weaker and sadder than he would in more modest garments. The younger man has an audacious stride, a full head of hair, and eyes which must be twice as wide and knowing as the eyes of the old man who peers through some cataract, no doubt, to challenge the fresh-faced priest. Hulce has no great physical difference to play (although there’s something to be said about the difference in the man when he’s wearing a wig and when he’s not, a difference which is exacerbated about that line of dialogue in which he laments to the hairdresser that he wishes he had multiple heads), but instead has to play a serious and unserious version of his character. The unserious version of Mozart is the one that stands out, the one who comes out to play much more often. He is the one with the laugh, which is a work of art, but what takes it from “art” to “Art” is the way that Hulce seamlessly incorporates different variations on it, altering it for embarrassment, for lewdness, for lewd embarrassment, for delight. Each one of those is a different sound than the last, and each meaning is clear each time he lets out one of those (insert synonyms here). But just as the old Salieri dominates the younger, I think, in the way we think about the movie, so too does that gleeful laughing Mozart dominate the serious one who knows that he is a musical messiah. When he says “they sound as if they shit marble” about the usual suspects one might have written an opera about in the late 1700s, he’s worked up, and he is worked up because he is deeply moved by the idea of writing an opera about common people in recognizable scenarios, and the opportunities handed to those who can write a different form of music for them than one might have written for, perhaps, Idomeneo, King of Crete. It’s a very different Mozart who lies there on the last night of his night and dictates a requiem mass to Salieri, utterly without games or laughter, entirely in control of this domain. His skin is pallid and damp, his eyes are tired, and his hair is as flyaway as his soul will be in the coming hours. His mind, though, still works at speed, and is given over to something meaningful instead of spelling sentences backwards or playing some silly tune in the style of Bach. There’s something genuine in Salieri in those moments too as he takes Mozart’s dictation; the envy seems to have disappeared, the wrath receded, and he is entirely consumed in being part of the creation of something greater than himself, which will outlast both of the men working on it. For the first time, at least with clear eyes, he knows what it feels like to be beloved of God.

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