One of the greatest composers of all time, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was the subject of the ambitious and epic film, Milos Forman’s AMADEUS (1984). The biopic tale of arguably the most brilliant musical talent from the 18th century classic era follows his true life story with some modifications and a few assumptive leaps based on Peter Shaffer’s screenplay and original stage play.
This film is told through the perspective of the twisted mind of the mad-with-envy Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), a fellow composer who is deeply frustrated by his own mediocre talent in contrast to that of the musical genius Mozart. It begins with Salieri as an old man at the insane asylum, where we find him after he has attempted suicide. He is visited by a priest who has heard that Salieri admitted to killing a man and he arrives to offer his religious duties of contrition.
Salieri tells his story by playing a few chords from a couple of tunes, explaining that they were enormously popular at the time and shocked his visitor was completely unaware of these songs and that he was its composer. He then plays another tune which the young priest immediately recognizes and hums along. He smiles and compliments the old man of this charming tune, yet Salieri concedes that well-known song was not his own but rather Wolfgang Mozart’s.
Now we begin at the origin of Salieri’s journey with Mozart. Salieri explains he spent a somewhat typical childhood as an Italian boy with an ambitious desire to compose music. He felt his family and humble surroundings held him back from his full potential of greatness. He prays to God that he will devote his sacrifices of hard work and loyalty in exchange for opportunity and fulfillment of superior music, befitting of God’s glory. Then his father dies and he claims his father’s death was a gift that changed his course of history to later propel his career as the court composer in coveted Vienna.
In parallel, we see the child prodigy, young Wolfgang grow up quite differently. Wolgang Amadeus Mozart was playing multiple instruments by three, wrote his first symphony by the age of eight and his first opera by twelve. Young Mozart’s father Leopold relentlously drives his son and parades him around to royalty across Europe to perform like a circus act. (This is very similar to Mozart’s real upbringing with his father.)
Salieri’s first encounter with Mozart (Tom Hulce) reveals their striking differences and highlights Salieri’s grave disappointment in the young man he’s admired from afar since his youth. Salieri is looking for Mozart at the royal palace of his anticipated performance, studying each face in the room to see if he can recognize such genius by a glance. As he slips into a side room that is stacked with culinary delectables to sneak a nibble, he hides from the young couple frolicking under the table in young love’s playful chase. Salieri finds their behavior unbecoming, brazen and vulgar. Just then, coming from the main room, the music starts in the absence of their star conductor. The young man with an uniquely distinctive laugh stops his bold pursuit, abruptly stands up and dashes off, announcing his discovery they’ve begun his music without him. Salieri is beside himself in dismay.
Mozart is not interested in playing politics to appease royalty whom controls any chances to garner opportunities for his music career. His cavalier and immature attitude offends his home court so he’s kicked out of Salzberg and off to Vienna, where Salieri is the court composer. In an awkward first introduction, Mozart blithely insults Salieri’s skills in front of the Emperor and ruffles several feathers of the court by showing off his superior talents. Mozart expresses enough boyish enthusiasm to convince the Emporer to allow him to write an opera- not in the traditional Italian, but in German.
The production is received well but the Emporer and his court reveal Mozart’s genuis is well beyond their comprehension when they respond that it was a fine effort but “possessed too many notes.” Mozart is bewildered. This is further complicated when Mozart’s unsophisticated fiancee Constanze and future mother-in-law force their introductions which reveals that Mozart has evidently been having an affair with the lead soprano. Salieri is in love (or “in lust” as he admits) with the lead soprano, his pupil. This is merely the beginning of the end for Mozart and Salieri.
The rest of the story travels throughout the unraveling of Salieri, followed by both Salieri and Amadeus falling deeper into madness. From the start, they both show hints of instability- in different ways. For Salieri, his obsession with Mozart is pushed over into quiet rage when he continues to observe Mozart’s flaws in all his vulgar, impractical ways as his continuing growth of talent shows unlimited trajectory. His pact with God has turned into an insane pact with the devil, hellbent on destroying Mozart due to his unhealthy envy of his musical genuis.
For Amadeus Mozart, part of his undoing he brings upon himself; so it’s almost an easy path for Salieri to destroy him. Salieri is acutely aware of his flawed idol’s weaknesses- his lack of social skills, his open-book naivte, his creative drive at all costs, his insatiable need to please his unforgiving father- all these play a part in Mozart’s deeper trip into madness and fatal destiny.
If you’ve never seen this film or if it’s been a very long time, this is a MUST SEE. It’s beautiful, it’s charming, it’s moving, it’s incredibly sad. When a well-known, historically signific biopic comes around, sometimes we’re prone to avoid it when we assume it won’t be entertaining simply because we already have a general idea of what happens and how it ends. Don’t make that mistake here.
The costumes are divine, the setting is atmospheric, frequently moody. The performances are exquisite. F. Murray Abraham as Salieri certainly deserved the Oscar he earned. As a matter of fact, this film earned a well-deserved total of eight Oscars. And that music. There’s a reason why Mozart’s music has lived on since the eighteenth century. The music is not background here, it’s showcased as a main character. There is a scene early on when, despite Salieri’s unwavering pursuit to end Amadeus, as he reads his icon’s pages of notes, he is visibly brought to tears. You don’t have to be a musician but perhaps only a music fan to react that deeply to this music. La Requim in particular. The first time I saw this film in the theater I was moved to tears at the death mass and it’s always been an emotionally stirring piece for me.
What is truly sad and compelling is that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s real life cause of sudden death at the age of 35 is still a mystery. Times were different back then in terms of evaluating and recording causes of death so it’s tough to claim with any certainty. Some said poisoning and others have more recently claimed a liklihood to strep infection. But all of these theories are to this day conjectures so this premise of such a secretly antagonistic plot by Salieri is not proven to have any merit, but not completely impossible either. Peter Shaffer’s ability to fill in these blank’s of this moving story with his stage production screenplay then this adapted screenplay for the big screen is impressive.