My entry in the Oscar Blogathon being conducted at Outspoken & Freckled, a movie that showcases the eternal struggle between mediocrity and quality. Of how envy often ends up destroying the very soul of a person. Of a genius called Mozart, whose prodigal talent would turn out to be his own worst enemy.
Amadeus swept the Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Director(Milos Forman), Best Actor( F.Murray Abraham), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume, Best Art Direction.
O! beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.- William Shakespeare, Othello
E-N-V-Y, 4 letters that more often than not, have the power to bring about the downfall of a person. It was Duryodhan’s envy of his cousins, the Pandavas, that led in a way, to the ultimate destruction of his entire Kuru dynasty. The Bard referred to it as the Green Eyed Monster, which proves to be the catalyst for the downfall of Othello. Quite often envy of a person more talented than oneself, can cause tragic repercussions. There have been countless movies, that revolved around the jealous sibling, seeking to wreak revenge on his brother/sister, as he considers them a threat to one’s own self. Envy in fact can be a positive attribute, if one uses it to motivate one self to do better in life. But the fact is most of the time, Envy becomes the “green eyed monster”, that feeds on one’s insecurities, jealousies, and ends up destroying the person, who sought to unleash it on his rival. The person obsessed with envy, does not look at the damage it causes to him, he does not care he is destroyed as long as the person he is envious of is destroyed himself.
It is this envy, that slowly destroys Antonio Salieri( F.Murray Abraham) in the 1984 movie adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus. I have not seen the play, nor do i really have much knowledge of the history of Salieri or even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart( Tom Dulce) for that matter, except the fact that he composed some lovely music. So it’s beyond my scope to comment on how faithful the movie was to the play, or about the historical accuracy of the movie. Also before we jump into conclusions, Amadeus has nothing to do with Baiju Bawra, that movie was about the titular character seeking a duel with Tansen, some form of revenge, for his father’s death. The movie to me was more about the rivalry between Salieri and Mozart. Actually I would not exactly term it as a rivalry, in this case, it was more about Salieri’s obsession with Mozart, that led to his eventual downfall later on.
When the movie is so much about Salieri, why has it been titled as Amadeus?
I think the answer goes right back to the opening scene, or rather a specific moment there. The movie starts off with Salieri, pleading forgiveness from the Lord for having killed Mozart. Salieri is in some form of delusion, repeatedly pleading with God, screaming out about his guilt, his sin. Not even the entreaties of his Valet or his Italian cook, nor the promise of a nice dinner, manage to divert him. Finally he cuts his throat, and is then admitted into the hospital, where a priest Volger visits him for his confession. As the priest is trying to get Salieri admit to his guilt, here comes one of the best moments. Salieri plays a couple of tunes , claiming to the priest he wrote them. The priest however shows his ignorance in both cases, stating he is not too familiar. And then he plays Mozart’s famous tune, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The priest nods, smiles, and even hums a bit of the music. Even to many of us, who know zilch about Mozart or Western classical music, i guess this tune would be quite familiar, especially in some of the ringtones.
Volger: Oh, I know that! That’s charming! I didn’t know you wrote that.
Salieri: I didn’t. That was Mozart. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. You know who that is?
I feel this one moment, put into context the importance of Mozart to the entire story. In spite of Salieri claiming that he “wrote 40 operas alone” and “he was the most famous composer in Europe” when the priest was still a boy, he is not a known figure outside the world of music. And yet the minute he plays the tune of Mozart, even the priest, who is otherwise not shown to be a music aficionado, immediately perks up, hums the tune. The fact here is Mozart had become central to Salieri’s existence, he sees Mozart as some one he wanted to be, but could not. It is the form of envy you feel, when you see your more talented colleague at work, doing well, while you feel for all the hard effort you are putting in, it simply does not pay. The relationship between Mozart and Salieri is not just of envy, its a more complex love hate relationship. Where director Milos Forman, comes out trumps is the way he delineates the relationship between both of them.
Though Salieri, is the villain of the piece, he is not completely evil. He loved music, was ambitious, a man of virtue, and in fact reasonably successful in life. Born into an Italian merchant’s family, he desired to be a musician, much against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to join the business. In fact when he narrates his flashback to the priest, Salieri claims that his jealousy towards Mozart, was not just due to the fact, that he was already a child prodigy, whose fame had spread even in the small Italian town, he was in.
I admit I was jealous when I heard the tales they told about him. Not of the brilliant little prodigy himself, but of his father, who had taught him everything.
Salieri’s father was not really into music, in fact he contemptuously dismisses his yearning to be a musician as “Why?Do you want to be a trained monkey”. And then what he calls by a “miracle”, his father has a sudden death, he is left free to pursue his passion, and then he ends up a court composer to Emperor Joseph II( Jeffrey Jones) of Austria. But right before the scene, where his father dies, there is that moment, when praying at the Church as a boy, he pleads with God to make him a famous musician, and in return he vows chastity and hard work. The way the character of Salieri is set up in the initially sequences, bringing to fore his motivations, his ideology, his ambition, makes us understand his character much better in the scenes later. It is this set up that actually gives the depth to the feelings Salieri has for Mozart later on.
And that brings to another great scene, the first time Salieri encounters Mozart. To date, Salieri has only heard of Mozart, heard his work, but never seen him face to face. He goes to seek him out at the Archbishop of Salzburg’s residence, where Mozart is schedule to play his music. Salieri feeling that Mozart would be some one respectful, dignified, scholarly begins to seek him out. He gets the shock of his life, when he learns that the person whom he had earlier sneaked upon cavorting and flirting with a lady, is Mozart himself.
So that was he! That giggling, dirty-minded creature I’d just seen crawling on the floor. Mozart. The phenomenon whose legend had haunted my youth.Impossible.
And then when he hears Mozart play, he is transported to another realm. As he tells to the priest, “It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God”. And this is where the envy deepens, a more complicated form of envy. Where earlier Salieri was merely envious of Mozart, for being such a genius, he finds it hard to accept, that the person whom he admired, was something he was not. He was flirty, he was carefree, indisciplined, wanton, everything he was not. For years Salieiri had worked hard on his music, abdicating the pleasures of life, taking vows of chastity, devoted to God, and yet he finds that this man who is everything he despises, fools around with women, acts like a fop, and then produces some of the most amazing pieces of music. He finds it inconceivable, that someone who is so pleasure loving, undisciplined, audacious could actually produce such divine music.
Why? Would God choose an obscene child to be His instrument? It was not to be believed! This piece had to be an accident. It had to be.
Also i feel Salieri’s insecurity was the fact that Mozart seriously challenged not just his music, but his own value system. The challenge to his music, was something he could handle, because he was aware of his own “mediocricity”, and that he could never rise to Mozart’s level. It is the challenge to his value system, that shook him more . It was if Mozart was consciously mocking at his values, his beliefs, and that made him insecure. It made him obsessed with Mozart, the more he hated him, the more he became obsessed with him.
Another very interesting scene, is the one where the Emperor inquires about Mozart’s capabilities, from Salieri and his courtiers. The divergence comes between, the librarian Baron Von Swienten and Count Orsini Rosenberg, the Opera director. While Von Swienten, has high appreciation for Mozart’s latest opera, Orsini does not think too highly of it. As both of them argue, the Emperor, suggests it would be fine if they could get Mozart to do an opera in German, something which shocks Orsini, for whom Italian is the natural language for any opera. While the movie does not project it much, i feel this and some of the other moments, do give an indication of the Austro-Italian rivalry, present in that period. Something which Mozart himself alludes to later on in the movie, when he finds that he has to submit samples of his work, for review, just to teach the Emperor’s 16 year old niece. He openly accuses the Italian lobby in the Court, claiming to surpress him.
They hate my music. It terrifies them. The only sound Italians understand is banality. Tonic and dominant, tonic and dominant, from here to Resurrection! Show them one interesting modulation and they faint. Ohime! Morbidezza! Morbidezza! Italians are musical idiots and you want them to judge my music!
I feel this points more to a rivalry between the Italian composers and the Austro-German composers, two races who have dominated and influenced Western classical music to a large extent, followed by the Russians.
One more thing that really works in the movie, is that while Salieri is the principal antagonist, Mozart is not exactly the pure as white, perfect hero. Sure he is the musical genius, whose music has the capacity to transport listeners to another world. But there is a lot that is wrong with him. He has a troubled relationship with his father, Leopold, the person of whom Salieri was equally jealous too. But ever since Mozart leaves Salzburg for Vienna, he feels troubled. He feels his simple minded son, would be corrupted once he is in Vienna and most of all he disapproves his son’s marriage with Constanze( Elizabeth Berridge), whom he feels is nothing better than a “Viennese slut”. Apart from the Salieri-Mozart angle, the depiction of the troubled father son relationship, is also another excellent feature of the movie. Mozart feels Vienna, would be the passport to the fame he is seeking, fueled no doubt by it’s reputation as the City of Musicians. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie, is when Mozart’s father visits him in Vienna. By then Mozart is in deep debt, having squandered away his money, the way he tries to convince his father, that everything is fine, and also the way Leopold expresses his disapproval of Constanze is top notch. You could feel the tension between the characters.
It is these weakness in Mozart’s character that Salieri begins to take advantage of. Knowing very well, he could never compete with Mozart, on musical terms, Salieri uses his influence, his position to play around with Mozart’s life and career. This is where the envy comes out in full display, as Salieri tosses aside all his ethics, his beliefs, he is just obsessed with the end goal, Mozart’s destruction. The obsession shows up it’s ugly side when Constanze, meets him to help out her husband’s career, and he takes advantage of the situation, asking her to come for the tonight. And yet when Constanze actually bares herself before him, he is unable to bring himself to seduce her. The rivalry between Mozart and Salieri is not that of a hero-villain, in fact though Mozart mocks at Salieri, he does not have any real hatred for him. It is Salieri’s envy for Mozart, that however consumes him like the green eyed monster. Every step he takes to destroy Mozart, ruin him, is actually a step further to his own destruction.
It is often said that academics can never make good movie makers. Milos Forman, proves the theory wrong, originally from the Czech republic, he fled to the US, to avoid the Communist rule, and later was a professor of film at Columbia University. In 1975 he took Ken Kesey’s novel about a mental asylum, and made one of the most memorable movies of all time, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Two of his movies One Flew and Amadeus swept the Oscars, and both of them deserved every prize they got. He also made some other great movies too The Man in the Moon, People vs Larry Flynt, Ragtime. Setting the movie in his native Prague, he constructs an epic that is vast, sweeping, and yet at the same time does not allow the grandeur of the settings to overwhelm the characters. The detailing is excellent, the grandeur of the Emperor’s court, the stark simplicity of Salieri’s residence, the dark, drab atmosphere of the hospital, the frivolity of the Masked dance everything is captured so beautifully. And yet the movie does not lose focus on the relationship between Mozart and Salieri, and by delineating the characters wonderfully, we are drawn into their world. What i particularly loved was the humane treatment given to the characters, so that while we do not approve of Salieri’s villainy , we still empathize with him, and while we root for Mozart, we are also consciously aware that he had played himself straight into Salieri’s hands.
What also works for Amadeus are some excellent performances. Among the supporting cast for me it would Jeffrey Jones as the Emperor, regal, majestic and imperious, Roy Dotrice as Leopold wonderfully bringing out the father’s anguish and Elizabeth Berridge as Mozart’s wife Constanze. Tom Hulce does a fairly good job as Mozart, though i felt his American accent did jar a bit. The finest performance hands down would be F.Murray Abraham, who gets a complex role as Sali, and does complete justice to it. Not going over the top, nor ndulging in wild gesticulation, he manages to convey the feelings of jealousy, envy, bitterness, pathos in a very restrained and subtle manner.