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Amadeus: Best Picture, 1984

AmadeusposterThe 57th Annual Academy Awards were hosted by Jack Lemmon. Amadeus was nominated for 11 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (F. Murray Abraham), Best Actor (Tom Hulce), Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, and Best Sound. Major contenders that year included A Passage to India (11 nominations, 2 wins), Places in the Heart (7 nominations, 2 wins), and The Killing Fields (7 nominations, 3 wins). F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri beat out Tom Hulce’s Mozart to take the award, and The Killing Fields won both Best Cinematography and Best Editing, leaving Amadeus with a total of 8 Oscars.

The film, based on a Tony-winning play by Peter Shaffer (who also won the screenplay award), follows a very one-sided rivalry between Antonio Salieri, court composer to Austrian Emperor Joseph II, and musical prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As a boy, Salieri makes a vow to honor God with his music, if God will reward him with the necessary talent. He feels that God has accepted this bargain, until Mozart arrives on the scene. Salieri immediately recognizes a talent that dwarfs his own, but is appalled to discover that the young Mozart is a vulgar, lascivious man. Unable to understand why God would choose to mock him by rewarding someone like Mozart with superior musical ability, Salieri pits himself against the Almighty in an effort to thwart and frustrate Mozart at every turn.

Amadeus begins, many years after the death of the title character, with Salieri’s attempted suicide and relocation to a primitive mental ward (an interesting setting considering director Milos Forman’s previous multiple Oscar-winner, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). He is visited there by a very young priest, and there is considerable irony in hearing Salieri addressed as “my son.” Salieri immediately makes it clear that he does not wish to confess, but he cannot resist the opportunity to tell his story. His account is a sort of “apology” in the sense of explaining and defending his beliefs and actions. From this point events unfold as an extended flashback which begins with Salieri’s childhood desire to be a musician.

As we get an idea of Salieri’s life and character, it becomes clear that there is a disconnect between his actions and his perception of himself. He recounts how, as a boy, he prayed “the proudest prayer a boy could pray” asking God to grant him talent. In return, he promises his chastity, industry, and humility. There is no apparent recognition of the contradiction between promising humility in a prideful prayer. He regards his father’s sudden death as a divine miracle in answer to his prayer (for which he feels no remorse). Indeed, Salieri gleefully regards any unexpected occurrence that works in his favor as a miracle. However, anything that frustrates him is also a result of divine intervention in his life.

On the one hand, Salieri believes that God is in control and actively at work in the world. On the other hand, he also seems convinced that the world revolves around him (or at least should). Meanwhile, although he doesn’t seem aware of it, Salieri is in continual violation of the spirit of his vow, if not the letter. He is not chaste in anything but the strictest sense of the word; for instance, he admits to the priest that he was “in lust” with his pupil, the beautiful opera singer Katerina Cavalieri. Also, while we don’t see him gorging himself, several scenes quietly emphasize his taste for fine food. Abraham plays these parts brilliantly, conveying the quasi-sexual and self-indulgent nature of Salieri’s love of sweets.

Perhaps the most significant contradiction of all, however, is Salieri’s philosophy of art. His primary aesthetic is essentially a theological one. Unlike most of the other characters in the film, Salieri believes that art (particularly in musical form, in this case) offers a connection with the divine. He frequently recognizes salvific themes in Mozart’s music, and even expresses the belief that Mozart’s music speaks with “the voice of God.” Strangely, though, Salieri is outraged. While he apparently recognizes that God can speak through anyone, he doesn’t believe that God should. He feels cheated of a gift that he is certain he deserves more than Mozart. As far as Salieri can see, not only do the wicked prosper, they do so with God’s full support and blessing.

Mozart, however,  does suffer for his own shortcomings. Less reflective than Salieri, he indulges in an unhealthy lifestyle that revolves around the constant consumption of alcohol and attending wild parties late into the night. His extravagance is a source of contention in his marriage and keeps him constantly on the verge of financial ruin. Mozart truly is just an overgrown child, and the film hints at his father’s failure to raise him well, but Salieri hears only the mocking laughter of God in Mozart’s juvenile cackle.

In the midst of his rage and envy, Salieri fails to recognize the significance of being able to experience God through Mozart’s music in a way that no one else in the film can, including Mozart himself. This is perhaps one of the most significant ideas in the film: Not only can God speak through “secular” art, but the ability to recognize and appreciate the Creator in art is itself a gift. And it is a gift which Salieri clearly possesses, as he shows again and again through his eye-opening voice-over commentary on Mozart’s music (which is the film’s third important character).

There is also a striking recurring shot which communicates the idea of art as an act of creation mimicking the Act of Creation: The conductor (either Mozart or Salieri) directs the orchestra in the royal opera house. The shot is framed with the conductor at the center, shot from below, with the richly-decorated beauty of the full auditorium as a backdrop. The musician as creator fills this enclosed “universe” with the sounds of music, maintaining total control over both the performers who follow his lead and play his music, and the enraptured audience.

The conflict gradually escalates until it leads Salieri to a breaking point, a sort of crisis of faith. He takes down the crucifix we have often seen him appeal to, leaving behind a stark outline on the wall where it once hung, and casts it into the fire. As the symbol of his devotion burns, he makes a new vow to God: “From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on earth as far as I am able.”

It is clearly a point of no return for Salieri, and as he sets himself up here as an antagonist to God he becomes a semi-diabolical figure. This connection is emphasized visually when Salieri repeatedly dons the costume worn by Mozart’s father before his death. The ghastly black robe and hat with its different masks for the front and back of the head signals Salieri’s assumption of his new role as a deceiver.

As I mentioned above, Mozart’s music plays a role so significant that it could be considered the film’s third major character. Its presence is palpable from the opening moments of Amadeus, still haunting Salieri long after the death of its composer. He feels that he has been kept alive so that God can torture him with the knowledge that Mozart has achieved musical immortality, while his own work fades into obscurity within his lifetime. Still, there is no denying that he remains powerfully affected by the art of the man he hates; so much so that he opens up the audience to the power of the music as he describes his experiences with it.

Ultimately, his plan to kill Mozart and win out over God revolves around turning the composer’s own music against him. Knowing of both the incredible potency of Mozart’s ability and his guilt over the death of his father, Salieri commissions a requiem mass. For a composer who speaks with the voice of God and can summon up the ghost of his own father or fill a theater with “the music of forgiveness,” being tasked with the music of death could prove quite dangerous (as it in fact does). As the work grows towards completion, Mozart draws himself closer and closer to death until he is too weak to even finish the work and Salieri must step in to help.

Their collaboration on Mozart’s deathbed is an amazing scene because it brings to a thematic head everything that the film has been about, particularly the conflict between Mozart’s effortless talent and Salieri’s reluctant admiration and the power of artistic creation. The music floods the soundtrack as Mozart dictates the notes onto the page, and there is a palpable feeling that he is summoning spiritual forces into the material world.

Amadeus is a magnificent, lavishly-produced film that speaks directly to the nature of the relationship between art and theology. It demonstrates the blindness of those who cannot recognize that such a relationship exists, but also something else: The destruction of a man who is consumed by his outraged inability to reconcile the majesty and purity of divine revelation with the flawed human instrument that expresses it.


I have to say that this is one year when Oscar absolutely nailed it. Amadeus is almost without question the greatest film of 1984, and among the greatest of the entire decade. Tragically and inevitably, David Lean’s amazing production of A Passage to India really got the shaft as a result. No doubt the sweep by Ghandi just two years before didn’t help its chances, but in almost any other year of the decade it would have had a better chance. The competition between these two films demonstrates, as many similar match-ups have, the problem with a ceremony where only one film can ultimately come out on top.

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~ by Jared on September 1, 2009.

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