In a strange twist of fate, I was watching Milos Forman’s Amadeus when the news broke that the film’s cinematographer, Miroslav Ondricek, had passed away.
The news only seemed to intensify the experience for me. The film is about death. The glory and tragedy of death. It is also about the virtues of chaos and vulgarity, the paradoxes of genius, and the violence of tradition. All of which were beautifully explored in Ondricek’s images. For the cinematography alone, Amadeus is a masterpiece.
Because it is a Milos Forman film, there is also plenty on the nature of freedom — an asylum is featured, and much as it was in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, it plays a good stand-in for Hell — and an examination of what it means to be crazy. Crazy is the key, I think, to enjoying the film. Or rather, learning to enjoy crazy.
Speaking of crazy, Amadeus is, in its most complete form, three hours long. I am slowly but forcefully beginning to believe that all movies should be three hours long.
But despite its length, Amadeus is not an epic. Well wait, it actually is an epic, but it doesn’t really match the modern qualifications for a three-hour movie. That is to say, for some reason we tend to be forgiving of strained time when there is plenty of fighting. Each film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy can be as painfully long as necessary because ¼ of each movie is just orcs dying. James Cameron’s Titanic gets a pass because somewhere near 50 percent of its somewhere-near-eternal running time is used to show a giant boat sinking (and it is truly wonderful).
But not so for Amadeus. Amadeus is three hours long because for three hours characters have interesting interactions.
It is a film that wanders. As I alluded to before, it is a poem of sorts, epic in the Greek sort of way. It tells the tragic story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (played by a giggling Tom Hulce), a genius manchild who makes music that people learn to appreciate more after he’s dead. He has enemies, and the story is told by one of them. A fictionalized version of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) tells the whole movie to a very patient catholic priest, who is visiting him in an insane asylum [hell].
Salieri is one of Mozart’s less talented, but genuinely ambitious contemporaries whose jealousy for the masterful manchild’s gift drove him to do (fictitiously) despicable things.
In that sense, Amadeus is a simple story about jealousy and creativity and genius and music (and also basically slander on Antonio Salieri’s name). But there is also a sorrow to it that I love. Everything is beautiful and elaborate, juxtaposing Mozart’s childishness with empty sophistication. Morzart giggles and prances through a life filled with poverty, death and apparent failure. Excess is a character in this film. Layers of color and textures of wealth and poverty paint a rich picture of a mysterious world. It’s a glorious thing to look at.
God also plays a major role in the film.
One of the most interesting parts of the script — which was adapted by Peter Shaffer from his own stage play — is a question hinted at by the bitter narrator: Does god gift creativity? If so, why does he gift it to Mozart, who is vulgar and unworthy? The name Mozart means “one who loves God,” and in a small but interesting way the film explores what it might mean to love God.
Salieri prayed all his life for the ability to worship God through song, but it wasn’t enough. He did not please God. He focused on his own piety, hoping it would draw him closer to the gifts God would surely bestow on him. Seeing Mozart, in all his profanity, achieve a level of sanctified artistry that he could recognize but not emulate drove Salieri to resent God. And who wouldn’t? Mozart never mentioned God. Music was his God.
But Forman is clear about his version of piety. The film worships excess and creativity and decries the false God of refinement. It is refinement that betrays Mozart and kills him, but his creativity made him immortal. The Mozart of the film craved a democratization of art, but his contemporaries sought to keep the divine gift only for the stingy upper-class. Mozart was Jesus. The emperor, the the Pharasies — the gatekeeper of orthodoxy. Salieri was his Judas.
One of the most engaging scenes is when Mozart is explaining why he chose to adapt the story of Figaro into an extravagant opera. Figaro was a story deemed vulgar by the emperor, but Mozart finds it to be simple and beautiful — an obvious parallel for his own life. They press him on why such a common story might be worth attention, and his answer bursts from him as though it were the central thesis to the film:
“Which one of you wouldn’t rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules? Or Horatius, or Orpheus… people so lofty they sound as if they shit marble!”
These days it might be said that we worship Mozart as scripture, which is why the film’s reminder that treating his work with cultic reverence misses the point is such a release. In his day, a prophet is never accepted in his home country. Jesus, Abraham Lincoln and Mozart came unto their own and their own received them not. For that reason, it’s a feel good story, but also a devastatingly dark one.
The feel good part is the reminder that just because you aren’t accepted, doesn’t mean you aren’t great. The dark one is the realization that talent and beauty and craft might mean nothing to those around you. Like Mozart, your exuberance and appreciation for beauty won’t keep you from a common grave.