This post marks my second entry in The Film Experiment series called Hit Me With Your Best Shot. It’s a fun project where various bloggers all watch a movie (or pick 1 out of 3) and then have the difficult task of selecting 1 shot that in your eyes captures said film.
My first entry was the daunting Citizen Kane but today proved to be difficult in its own way. This weeks film is a different kind of masterpiece- Milos Forman’s 1984 film Amadeus. (Which was my 1984 selection in Movies From My Life btw)
Based on the play from Peter Shaffer it tells a fictionalized version of Amadeus Mozart’s (Tom Hulce) life. It is done through a foil and narrator Antonio Salieri (F Murray Abraham) who in his words is ‘the patron Saint of mediocrity”. He wants to compose music so badly but he is not given the special talents by God, which he bitterly resents especially when a buffoon like Mozart seems to be so blessed.
Part of the problem is Salieri’s warped view of religion. He thinks he can make a deal with God. If he is a ‘model of virtue’ than God will bless him with great talent. If this was the case then we would all be making deals with God…Salieri claims at the beginning that he works hard, prays and gives many lessons for free. This reminds me of the rich man who asks Christ what he needs to do to make it into heaven. “Sell all your possessions and give to the poor”. He goes away sorrowing. Jesus knows there is that one part of his heart which is not given to God. Salieri is much the same way. He goes through the motions of faith without being open to God’s plan for him. He thinks he can earn the benevolence of God and that he knows what is better for his life than God- the ultimate in pride.
This is when that green-eyed monster called envy creeps in and Salieri allows it to fill his heart. Whenever he hears Mozart’s music he is overcome by its perfection and the animosity grows stronger until it finally births a plan for revenge- not just on his rival but on God for being so foolish in his gift-giving. He even burns the cross he is so bitter.
As is usually the case with envy Mozart is completely oblivious to the hold he has over Salieri. He has plenty of his own demons to focus on with a father who is never happy, substance abuse and a public that is not always accepting to his work. In the great irony Salieri is one of the few who consistently realizes the genius of Mozart and yet that leads to his eventual death and demise.
Amadeus does a lot of things as good as any movie I’ve seen. It looks great, the opera’s feel real and lush, music is sublime, costumes wonderful and a little surprising (for example, the pink wig is unexpected in a period piece). But all that aside its greatest achievement to me is two-part:
1. It shows how envy will ruin your life. Unlike last years Whiplash, Amadeus seems to say that we are either born with talent or we are mediocre. Mozart needs no Terence Fletcher to beat the talent out of him. It’s just there. That may be true but surely Salieri could have done better if he had not allowed his rival to overtake him? He certainly could have been happier. As an old man he is in despair, mired with guilt and all because he couldn’t be happy at the blessings of another. No wonder envy is a deadly sin!
2. It shows the sublime beauty of a person absorbing a masterpiece better than any film I’ve seen. That moment when Salieri first hears Mozart’s music is perfect. He’s just looking at the notes on the page but he hears it in his mind and it almost overwhelms him, even years later he is overcome with the beauty of the music. This is why he thinks it is God speaking through Mozart because only a deity could inspire such breathtaking work.
The problem with the grandeur of music shots is you really need the whole scene to get the majesty of it.
You need to hear Salieri talking about the ‘almost comic’ start, “just a pulse” and then the wind instruments and an “oboe. A single note, hanging there unwavering. Until a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such a delight” ‘ This is music “filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God”.
I think that’s the most beautiful description of music or art I’ve ever heard. But like I said, you need the whole scene (a tribute I think to Shaffer’s amazing script).
So I will go with the envy shot. I am going to pick old Salieri with very convincing makeup. In the narrative he has just determined his plan for revenge on Mozart and God. He describes the funeral and what a delicious day it will be for him. Pointing to himself he says “And God is forced to listen! Powerless, powerless to stop it! I, for once in the end, laughing at him!” You can just feel the bitterness oozing out of this face. I love that he is pointing at himself because it is the envy in his heart that is the problem not God, not Mozart, not anyone else.
But in fact, he is the only one left laughing at himself. “Mediocrities everywhere I absolve you!”