Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: Amadeus (1981), by Milos Forman.
Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984), arguably one of the most remarkable and undoubtedly one of the most well-known films directed by a Czech filmmaker, is the epitome of a talented musician’s career drama whose greatest misfortune was to live as a music composer in the shadow of the magnificent Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The movie deservedly won eight Oscars.
Amadeus is not a biographical portrait of Mozart, played here by Tom Hulce. Instead, the world-famous classical composer’s life merely serves as an instrument to frame the inner struggle and spiritual crisis of another glorious musician: Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) who, as director of the Italian opera at the Habsburg court for more than fifteen years, had a huge influence on the development of classical and opera music in 18th-century Vienna.
While the entire film is narrated and presented from the Italian artist’s point of view, the drama goes way beyond the pure rivalry soap opera between the two highly gifted men. The historical accuracy of the antagonism and conflict is highly debatable, as is Forman’s depiction of the characters of Mozart and Salieri: but Amadeus is no historical drama, and shouldn’t be seen as such.
Amadeus: Hearing the very voice of God
Many of us already had the upsetting feeling of diligently working on a project, only to be beaten, overcome or surpassed by a talented person who, despite showing less discipline, achieved better results than us. In such situations, one may think that hard work isn’t worth it.
Antonio Salieri, the famous 18th century composer, depicted by Milos Forman as a malevolent, hard-working, devious and deeply religious character, had the tragic fate to live in an era when his outstanding ear to produce melody wasn’t enough to bring him the most precious recognition an artist can dream of: immortality.
In Amadeus, the Italian musician’s personal tragedy bears multiple dimensions. Salieri believes Mozart is the voice of God, gifted with all the supernatural music skills and talent he cannot attain through persevering work and faithful demeanor in his lifetime.
Salieri suffers from the excruciating knowledge that God only endowed him with the ability to recognize Mozart’s miraculous talent, but didn’t give him the power to reach his level and attain immortal fame.
Salieri, who fanatically believes that music is the bridge between him and God, is not filled with rage against Mozart per se, but is consumed with anger and resentment against the creator who gave all the prodigious musical abilities to a man (controversially) depicted here as incredibly childish, obscene and tippler.
The sweet melody
What characterizes Salieri’s attitude towards the Austrian composer is the conflicting feelings of admiration and jealousy.
In Amadeus, Milos Forman portrays Salieri’s persona struggle as he receives all the honours from countless common high-ranking figures with limited musical knowledge, but never gains recognition from Mozart himself.
The marvelously blue scene, where Mozart corrects Salieri’s proudly composed piano piece in front of the representatives of the Vienna court, immediately strikes the viewer with a potent mix of discomfort and empathy. The pain that haunts the Italian composer until his death is palpable in every scene of the film.
Amadeus gives the unique impression that music itself has a soul within the film, almost a protagonist in its own right. Besides the movie’s many notable achievements, including the characters’ build-up and elaborate story-line, Czech director Milos Forman masterly fiddled with the abundant symphonies, appropriately adjusting them according to the scenes and story developments. The appearance of Leopold Mozart at his son’s home in a dark and sinister cloak is a fabulous example of visual and musical storytelling.
Far from providing a biography of the genius composer or a historical account of 18th century Vienna, Forman’s Amadeus is a deeply personal tale, illustrating the tragic fate of people who were born and thrived in the wrong place at the wrong time, forced to perform their work in the shadow of history’s giants.
By Bence Janek