Written by Peter Schaffer
Directed by Milos Forman
Starring F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge
Make no mistake, Milos Forman’s AMADEUS is unapologetically dramatic. This is a film that announces its tone within seconds of the image appearing on screen. A man we do not yet know has attempted kill himself by cutting his wrists. He is rushed to the hospital – if you can call a horse-drawn carriage rushing – while the intensely dramatic music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera, “Don Giovanni” fills the perfectly framed screen. From the extravagantly detailed costume and set pieces to the impeccable performance of F. Murray Abraham as a man who lives in the shadows of genius while God watches and laughs, AMADEUS is the kind of film where every element comes together to create a piece that is just as timeless as the music of the man whose life story it tells.
Screenwriter, Peter Shaffer never felt his Tony Award winning play about the most infamous of composers would make a very good film. How could a man so smart be so completely wrong about this? AMADEUS pits man against man, man against society and man against its own creator while never losing sight of the delicate ties that bind all of these violent struggles together and make life meaningful. Late 18th century Venetian Court Composer, Antonio Salieri, played by Abraham, never knew the rewards of outgrowing his functional duties for a taste of truly inspired creation. He knew the sound of the divine when he heard it though and he heard it in a young prodigy named Mozart, played with infectious exuberance by Tom Hulce. Knowing that only true musical beauty can be crafted when it is done so in tribute to God, Salieri knew that Mozart must have been a man of great stature and worth. Imagine his surprise, or perhaps more appropriately, his disgust, when he first laid eyes on Mozart, the composer having just missed the entrance for his performance because he was too busy frolicking with a peasant under a table in a private palace dining room.
Before he meets him, Salieri circles the room in which Mozart is supposed to play. He studies the faces and asks himself, “What is the face of genius?” Who among these men was capable of creating some of the most sumptuous and adventurous pieces of music he had ever heard. He was smart enough to ask that question but not open-minded enough to see the answer. Forman’s Mozart is a playboy, a rock and roll star. His youthful energy is scattered and misguided but his talent is unbound. More importantly, his ability is unmatched and Mozart knows this. He expects admiration; he demands appreciation; and, despite all his progressive thinking, he looks down upon those whom he deems not intelligent enough to understand his genius. The challenge for the viewer is to reconcile the image of Mozart, one we all only know as stately and still from portraits, with the baffling baffoonery of the childlike Mozart on the screen. The challenge for Salieri is far more personal and demanding.
Ever since he was a small child, Salieri wanted to please his God by giving him the gift of music. He wanted to channel the grace of God through his fingers and made promises to abandon all of life’s selfish pleasures in order to give this beauty back to God. When he was made Venetian Court Composer, he felt as though God had heard his prayers. When he heard Mozart’s compositions though, he knew that what stemmed from his own hands was nothing more than mediocrity. This was a reconciliation that he could not grasp. It is no wonder that Salieri’s struggle led to madness. His finely tuned ear was designed for the highest of appreciation and so he could not pretend that his work was anywhere near the standard he felt did justice to his God. Every time he hears another of Mozart’s works, he is ripped apart inside and you can see that tear in Abraham’s entire body. His jealousy drove him to make decisions designed to destroy Mozart when all the while, his passion longed for more of his inexplicably intricate music. He had always wanted to be Mozart but could barely stand being in his presence. How could any God have gone so wrong?
Genius is not earned but rather natural and certainly random in its selection. AMADEUS is one such instance of genius. Despite all of its potentially alienating period piece elements, Forman makes sure that the most relatable elements are always right up front. We have all at one time or another been in Salieri’s shoes. We have all wanted to produce work that resonates loudly and touches many because of its universal appeal and undeniable brilliance. We have also all questioned why we try time and time again after never quite reaching those heights. It isn’t about the man though; it is about the music itself, the appreciation of which always brought both composers to the same level ground, where they were admirers and adversaries no more. Only ego stood in the way of another of God’s gifts they both missed out on – friendship.