Great Moments in Cinema: Amadeus
There is nothing inherently wrong with mediocrity. Not everyone can be above average, and even fewer people ever achieve true greatness. That’s nothing to be ashamed of (even though we are often made to believe otherwise). However, mediocrity can be extremely frustrating for those who desire nothing more than to rise above it, but are unable to do so as a result of their own limitations. Worse than that, though, is when someone consigned to the heap of mediocrity is able to recognize true genius, and can do nothing but sit and watch as it passes them by, cackling maniacally the whole way. This is the central theme of director Miloš Forman’s Oscar-winning masterpiece Amadeus, the climax of which is the focus of this month’s column.
The film, which won eight Academy Awards in 1985, including Best Picture, eschews historical accuracy for a gripping story of madness and revenge. Confined to an insane asylum toward the end of his life, the petty and jealous Italian composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, in an award-winning performance) is visited by a young priest who offers to hear Salieri’s confession. At first, Salieri mocks the young priest, but eventually pride loosens his tongue, and Salieri confesses that he is responsible for the premature death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), perhaps the greatest composer of his age. Salieri talks at length about his youth, and how he devoted his talent to God, only to be upstaged by an obnoxious, conceited brat who was seemingly able to conjure up divine music at will. Enraged, Salieri rejects God, and pledges to destroy Mozart. Using his influence, Salieri makes sure that Mozart will never have any wealthy pupils in Vienna, which leaves the young composer penniless. After the death of Mozart’s overbearing father (Roy Dotrice), Salieri hatches a complex plan to destroy Mozart once and for all. Disguising himself in a costume once worn by Mozart’s father, Salieri hires Mozart to write a requiem mass, which Salieri plans on passing off as his own after he has killed Mozart. Driven to exhaustion, Mozart enlists Salieri’s aid in finishing the piece, but the young composer dies before they can finish the requiem, thwarting Salieri’s plan. Salieri spends the rest of his life believing that God chose to kill his instrument of genius rather than allow a mediocrity like Salieri to share even a small fraction of Mozart’s glory.
While the movie cleaned up at the Oscars a couple of decades ago, these days it doesn’t seem to get the respect it deserves. Amadeus is a superb film, and it deserved every single one of those eight Acadamy Awards. It’s features incredible music, lush costumes, and great performances, and is filled with dozens of great moments, any of which could have been written about for this column. From the sequence in which Salieri reads Mozart’s sheet music for the first time (“These…are originals?”), to the bit in which Mozart openly mocks a disguised Salieri to his face, to the first performance of the haunting Don Giovanni, any of these moments would have been worthy of inclusion in this column. Instead, I’m going to be looking at a sequence which occurs quite late in the film, a bit that serves as the film’s climax, and also acts as a summation of the central theme.
Just before the film’s climax, Mozart is conducting a performance of “The Magic Flute,” which was commissioned by Mozart’s friend, Emanuel Schikaneder (Simon Callow), the head of a low-rent theatre troupe who prefer performing for the masses rather than royalty. On the verge of death, Mozart has lost all of his money, and has driven away his wife Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge) and their young son. Meanwhile, the calculating Salieri lurks in the audience, watching the performance with an expression that is a mixture of jealousy and awe. Suddenly, Mozart collapses, and Salieri rushes to his side. He orders that Mozart be taken home and put into bed. When they arrive at Mozart’s flat, Salieri orders everyone else to leave, but he stays behind and urges Mozart to work on the requiem. They work through the night, with Mozart growing weaker as Salieri becomes more and more agitated about finishing the composition. Finally, as dawn breaks, Mozart tells Salieri that he needs to rest. Both men fall asleep, only to be awoken by the returning Constanze, who has come home just in time to watch her husband die. She orders Salieri to leave, and then locks the unfinished requiem in a cabinet just as Mozart draws his last breath. Chaos descends upon the room, and Salieri’s face drops with the realization that his plans will never come to fruition, and he will spend the rest of his life as a mediocrity, living in the shadow of greatness.
The sequence serves as a perfect summation of the film’s theme of genius versus mediocrity. The brilliant Mozart, who has attained some measure of fame but remains penniless and largely unheralded during his lifetime, wastes away, a victim of his own drive and genius. Salieri, meanwhile, is an average composer at best, but has attained wealth and power and a position of privilege in the court of the clueless Emperor Joseph II. Despite all that, Salieri has spent the better part of his life trying to live up to Mozart’s genius, and at long last, with Mozart dying, Salieri has a chance to take some of that brilliance for himself. The scene is lovingly shot, but still has the ambiance of a horror film in some ways. The warm lighting betrays a sense of cold calculation, as Salieri pushes the weakened Mozart to the limits of his creativity. Mozart lies in the bed, his skin pale and covered in sweat, his eyes sunken and ringed with dark circles. Salieri hovers near the foot of the bed, scribbling furiously with a quill as Mozart dictates each note and movement of the requiem. It’s almost as if Salieri is a vampire, sucking both the life and the inspiration from Mozart, who is withering away to nothing before the viewer’s very eyes. The sequence manages to be both harrowing and triumphant, thanks largely to the brief snippets of Mozart’s incredible music we are allowed to hear throughout the scene. Above all else, though, is an astute distillation of the way mediocrity often tries to emulate genius, often dragging it down in the process, and ends up destroying it entirely.
Much like the titular character, Amadeus is a brilliant film that shone brightly when it was first released, but seems to have faded a bit in recent years. Despite the fact that it was justly heralded during its initial release, it is a film that doesn’t seem to hold the same cultural cachet as many others, and is rarely held up by serious film fans as one of the truly great movies. Nevertheless, it is a film that is possessed of an anarchic sort of brilliance, one that is a technical marvel that is packed with great performances, and manages to transcend the usual pitfalls that plague most other biopics. It is a truly great film in a field that is littered with examples of mediocrity. Not that there is anything wrong with being mediocre. It’s just that sometimes it can be very frustrating, especially for those who can recognize true genius.