Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Top Films: Amadeus

Amadeus is the fictitious account of the last years of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart while he lived in Vienna. It focuses on the relationship between him and the Viennese court composer, Antonio Salieri. Salieri is in fact the most important character, and the movie is really about him and his struggle with God. The movie opens with Salieri as an old man. He calls out “Forgive me, Mozart!” and attempts to kill himself by slitting his own throat. He is taken to a sanitarium, where a priest comes to hear his confession. He evidently has claimed that he killed Mozart, some thirty years ago.

“Do you know who I am?” he asks the priest.

“It makes no difference. All men are equal in God’s eyes.” is the priest’s response.

“Are They?”

This question is key to the film. The answer, of course, for Salieri is that they are not. The priest does not know him or his music which, while popular in his day, is no longer played. Everyone, however, including this priest, knows of Mozart’s music. Some men are made for glory, the rest are simply mediocre. Thus the name of the film, Amadeus: “Beloved of God.”

As his story unfolds, we find out that Salieri had dreamed of being a great composer like Mozart who was famous as a child prodigy. He prayed to God, making a bargain with Him. In exchange for God making him famous as a great composer, he would give God his devotion, chastity, and humility. He believes God answers his prayer through questionable circumstances and becomes the court composer to the musical emperor, Joseph II. In this capacity, all his dreams come true. He even has the opportunity to meet Mozart. What would a man with such talent, (and on such good terms with God) look like?

While looking for Mozart, he happens to notice a crude and dirty-minded young man, chasing a woman under the tables on the floor. As the couple flirts and misbehaves on the floor, a beautiful music begins to play. The young man instantly stops and exclaims, “My music! They are starting without me!” It is Mozart, and his music is so divine Salieri describes it as the “voice of God.” How could God choose to use such a terrible and sinful man as His spokesman?

Salieri is forced to speculate more on this issue as Mozart is hired by the emperor to compose a German opera. Salieri composes a short march in honor of Mozart, who proceeds to improve it upon only hearing it once. As Mozart’s success in Vienna increases, Salieri begins to try and impede his progress. He advises the emperor to not hire Mozart as a musical tutor for his niece, but instead to make any musicians who want the position to submit compositions for review. Mozart refuses to do so, but his wife secretly brings Salieri some of his latest work..

Salieri looks at the compositions, all original manuscripts. They are without correction or change of any kind. It is the same perfection he had encountered when first meeting Mozart, the “voice of God.” This scene is masterfully done, using a technique seen at other times in the film. The old Salieri tells the viewer his thoughts, as the younger Salieri is seen reading the music. While he reads each manuscript, the viewer is treated to that piece of music. This same method is regularly used when Mozart is onscreen, with the viewer treated to whatever music is playing in the composer’s head. After seeing such perfection in Mozart’s music, Salieri denies God and declares war on Him, vowing to destroy His incarnation.

The second act of the movie begins with the arrival of Mozart’s father in Vienna. His presence serves to heighten the viewer’s, and Mozart’s, perception of his imperfections. At the same time, Salieri anonymously hires a maid to serve in the Mozart house. He uses her as a spy to get damaging information on Mozart in order to destroy him. He soon discovers that Mozart is working on an opera based on a forbidden libretto, The Marriage of Figaro.

Instead of hurting Mozart’s standing with the emperor, Salieri’s revelation merely gives Figaro a chance to be performed. Its music, according to Salieri, is the “music of true forgiveness,” and he hears God singing through the opera, “conferring on all who sat there perfect absolution.” Mozart’s opera is long, though, and only receives a limited run of performances.

Forgiveness is a theme that runs through Amadeus from the opening words of Salieri, cried out before his suicide attempt, to the closing scenes where Mozart begs Salieri for forgiveness. It goes hand in hand with the running theme of the depravity of man. Both of the lead characters are essentially bad men, and they both eventually realize it. It is in the Figaro scene, where God’s forgiveness is seen. It comes undeserved and unrequested, for neither of the characters has recognized their need for it, and is simply declared to the audience. This is a true picture of God’s forgiveness. We do not earn it by changing our ways. We can not change until we have received it.

Shortly after Figaro, Mozart discovers his father, now back in Salzburg, has died. Out of this loss comes Mozart’s next opera, Don Giovanni. In it he brings his father’s ghost back to accuse him before the whole world. He has come to terms with his own depravity and recognizes it. From this point on the movie presents Mozart in an ever-downward spiral of health, both physically and mentally.

At Don Giovanni’s performance, Salieri takes his war with God to another level. He decides to kill Mozart. He hires him (in disguise) to compose a funeral mass which he plans on presenting as his own at Mozart’s funeral. In this way he thinks he will finally receive the glory that he deserves, by presenting God’s music as his own.

So the third act of the movie begins. It is fast paced and has a new feel to it compared to the rest of the film. It is far darker with a rapidly degenerating Mozart. Salieri’s flashback narratives cease for the remainder of the film, and the action simply occurs. Mozart composes his funeral mass in fear, and desperately tries to escape what he feels is his own death by distracting himself with a comedic opera, alcohol, and partying.

His wife leaves him. He finally completes his last opera, The Magic Flute. During its opening performance he collapses, and is rushed home by Salieri who, as usual, was there to see it. Salieri sees that Mozart doesn’t have much time and rushes to get Mozart to complete the mass. They stay up all night composing in a scene that is masterfully done to let the audience into the mind of the great composer.

They fail to complete the mass before Constanze arrives. She forbids Mozart to work any more on the mass and attempts to kick Salieri out. He appeals to Mozart’s wishes, but he has already died. In Salieri’s mind, God has robbed him of glory, choosing to kill his beloved before letting Salieri benefit from the mass.

In the end, Salieri has missed the point. He sees God as blessing only a few “beloved” people among all the mediocrity in the world. However, the viewer has seen that all men are equally depraved and separated from God. God’s blessing, forgiveness, is available to all and is, in the words of Salieri himself, “Unstoppable!”


  1. great insights, as usual. I did not see Immortal Beloved in your list of movies ... wonder what your thoughts would be on that one?

  2. I have yet to see that one. It is on my "to see" list.


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