Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Movie Review: Amadeus (Part I)

Directed by Milos Forman. 1984.

Amadeus is about emotions, swirling, fiery, and consuming emotions. Amadeus is about how one man fused his passion with his genius and is remembered as one of the greatest artists of all time while another man, in the face of such brilliance, went mad. The central conflict of Amadeus is simple and profound: Antonio Salieri, esteemed Court Composer to Emperor Joseph II, must contend with a young new composer who arrives on the scene in Austria, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Before discussing the plot and characters we must note the majority of the events are recounted in retrospect by Salieri in his old age, years later. For the purposes of analysis, I will refer to events in chronological order.

What about these emotions is so significant, though? Before we can answer that question we need to know two facts, what the emotions are, and how are they related.

i. Friendship to Enmity

Salieri’s relationship with Mozart begins as friendly affection and admiration. As a child Salieri worshiped the young Mozart who toured Italy playing music for kings while he himself was playing childish games in his backwoods town. This amity-from-afar gives way to rivalry when Mozart takes up residence in Vienna. In the span of just a few minutes, Mozart slights not one, but two, of Salieri’s pieces, first by calling one a “funny little tune” and another by transforming Salieri’s gawky little march into a charming tune while everyone watches in amazement. Mozart’s liberality wins the heart of the Emperor, who he proceeds to impress along with the entire court by demonstrating his virtuosity and talent for improvisation. As icing on the cake Mozart proceeds to debut a brilliant new opera and, as Salieri insists, bed the leading lady.

There are two scenes, though, which push Salieri over the threshold from disdain to outright anger. First, Salieri glimpses at a portfolio of Mozart’s sheet music and not only sees page after page of brilliant music but learns that these sheets are his first copies. The music is not edited or refined or redesigned, but merely laid down, already perfected. To Salieri, Mozart did not slave over every note like he did even for his paltry little march, but rather just wrote down music once he had worked out the details in his head. There was absolutely no apparent effort by Mozart. The second scene is when Mozart’s wife, Constanze, shows up at Salieri’s residence and condescends to his bribe whereby if she were to bed him, Salieri would effectively give Mozart the royal appointment he so desperately needed. Salieri, shocked as Constanze denudes for him, sends her away. What did Mozart do to deserve a wife that would endure such embarrassment for him? Why did Mozart get this pretty wife willing to sacrifice herself for him, while Salieri had to be content with sucking down sweets and fondling the palms of sopranos? Worst of all, why was Mozart endowed with the greater genius? Why does he get to enjoy the worldly pleasures Salieri renounced and also artistic superiority?

Yet it is the facility with which Mozart appears to act that enrages Salieri. Where he is bound by chastity, Mozart enjoys a sexy wife. Where he is bound to humility, Mozart is free to boast. Where he must slave away even for a trifle, Mozart dashes off brilliant music as easily as he breathes. However, the transformation is not yet complete. When Salieri resolves to harm and block Mozart, Salieri is still only angry. He has been repeatedly slighted by Mozart and he wants some revenge. Salieri is still a relatively sympathetic character at this point. He is a respected composer, he sits on councils for poor musicians, teaches (often for free), is content merely to flirt with his leading ladies, he walks with gravitas and confidence amongst the regular folk, with humility before the emperor, and with great piety before God, and he even writes a friendly little march to welcome Mozart to Vienna. Mozart is an affront to all of this. While Salieri would have been content for Mozart simply to go away, now he wishes Mozart to remain so he may suffer.

During the performance of Don Giovanni, though, Salieri crosses the threshold from anger to enmity. Mozart ceases to be the object of Salieri’s anger and becomes the tool of his hatred, a tool for depriving God of the joy of His creation. Salieri’s motivation is no longer retribution for the slings and arrows of Mozart’s affronts, but a retribution for the injustice of his existence. Mozart is no longer to be made to suffer, but to be erased. Salieri is no longer pained, but mad. We lose all sympathy for Salieri, now the villain, no longer pitiable and impotent but moving deftly and purposefully to achieve his goal.

ii. Emulation to Envy

Mozart started out as Salieri’s idol. Salieri began his career in emulation of Mozart’s, which he heard of in stories about Mozart’s European Tour, in which he played for kings, queens and the pope, organized by his father and impresario, Leopold. But what ultimately undoes Salieri? It is not just his mediocrity, since even amateur musicians can appreciate works of genius. Nor is it simply his ambition, for even determined upstarts look to successful people as heroes to imitate. The unique combination of these two traits destroys Salieri. Since falling short by just a little breeds more envy of success than a complete failure, Mozart’s victory is not only a triumph but also a reproach to Salieri. Worse, Salieri is just talented enough to see the success and see the difference between Mozart’s genius and his own mediocrity. There is no hiding it. Thus as much as Salieri adores every perfect note that Mozart writes, each is also a dagger that pains him by its very perfection. Salieri’s mediocrity and ambition coalesce into envy, turning what he loves most (beautiful music) into a symbol of his imperfection and impotence. Likewise, the medallion the Emperor rewards him with for his musical contributions becomes the omnipresent symbol of his mediocrity.

Part IPart II | Part III

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