Amadeus is one of my favourite movies of all time; a view shared by many, I know. And to those who aren’t a fan, I understand. I do. It’s at least two hours long, with the Director’s Cut bordering on three. It’s an epic historical drama full of silly costumes, long names and classical music. It’s also, for the most part, completely made up – a ‘fantasia on the theme of Mozart and Salieri’ as its writer dubbed it. If you’re going to watch a three-hour film about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, don’t you at least want it to be about what actually happened?
And yet, it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of cinema ever made, and I defend that view religiously. Every part of it has been refined, honed to onscreen perfection. The direction from Milos Forman is impeccably precise. Its soundtrack is a piece of divine beauty – with Neville Marriner acting as the voice of God in his supervision of every symphony; every note and bar. And the acting talent is no less than otherworldly, with leads Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham presenting some of the most believable characters ever written. Indeed, at the Academy Awards for that year, the ‘Best Actor’ nominations included the both of them (with Abraham taking the victory).
It’s a spectacular movie – something I don’t think anyone could doubt, fan or not. Every street of Vienna was magnificently recreated for the titanic endeavour, every line of stitching on the rich, vibrant costumes is meticulously placed. And the hair pieces? Don’t even get me started. It’s all the pomp and circumstance of 1781 Austria – and the court of Emperor Joseph II – brought to life, in a tale like a rhapsody; some epic packed to the teeth with opulence, avarice, heartbreak and jealousy.
I first saw the movie some years ago now. It seemed that everywhere I went, Amadeus was lurking there somewhere, like the shadowy, cloaked figure of Mozart’s father. I fell in love with Falco’s 1985 one-hit wonder, ‘Rock Me Amadeus’, and wanted to know why the man was so inspired by such a movie. The cover of Swedish metal band Ghost’s second album, Infestissumam, paid homage to Amadeus’. Hell, one of my favourite radio presenters, Simon Mayo, even puts it forward as his favourite film of all time. I couldn’t escape it.
And when finally, I sat down and watched Amadeus, I was stunned. Simply. Stunned. And I’m a fantasy nerd – I watch movies about rings and elves and magical swords. But even I admit that some of The Lord of the Rings movies go on a bit at times. The Green Mile is a masterful story, and a phenomenal movie, but I still find myself checking the time every now and then on subsequent re-watches.
But Amadeus? I sat through three hours and didn’t glance down at my phone once. I still don’t, even now.
Part of its genius is in the classical structure of the piece. Amadeus owes a great deal to the tragedies of ancient Greece, as the story opens with Father Vogler trying to draw confession from its antagonist, Antonio Salieri. The morose composer, meanwhile, is our muse invoked, and the constant flashes back to the present throughout are a perfect touch; mirroring the choruses from Medea, or Agamemnon. We see Salieri become more alive, full of sacreligious fervor with every passing scene, as Vogler meanwhile undergoes a crisis of faith before our very eyes.
But it also plays out like one of the operas in which Amadeus breathes life. It has deliberate acts and theatrical elements. Just as Mozart thinks a knock at the door is some messenger from his dead father, he begs Salieri to ask the emissary for money. Unbeknownst to Mozart, the visitors are in fact his friends from the theatre, bringing him his share for a recent play. But Salieri returns to the bedroom, peddling Mozart’s suspicion, handing him the money.
The entire film plays out like an impossibly intricate plot, weaving throughout seamlessly. Happenstance and cunning schemes are rife, hatched and executed with Machiavellian success. It is, as Salieri surmises one of Mozart’s symphonies previously, perfection. To remove but one scene would be an injustice, and not tell the full story. To add another would be trampling on the delicacy of this masterstroke.
And indeed, F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri is one of the best villains ever constructed in cinema, relishing and delighting in every trick of his own creation, rejoicing in every misstep of Mozart’s. Yet wallowing every time his rival triumphs over him once again. You can feel the enmity drip from his lips as the story progresses, the metaphorical slashes of his murderous blade with every wave and flick of his hands. You understand the absolute pity though, above all, as he is withdrawn to his chair – surrounded by only the insane and unhinged to hear his song – doomed and judged.
And those last words of his, murmuring softly in Vogler’s ear as the film draws to a close, ‘I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint’. Mesmerising. Though Mozart was the better composer, the better lover, the better person, Salieri outlived him still. And though he is fated to be little more than a reclusive sociopath in his waning years – wheeled out every morning to use the toilet – he is perhaps the most powerful villain ever bought to the silver screen, and one of its most enthralling.
But the best moment in Amadeus – among those in cinema – it’s crescendo, is the Confutatis Maledictis scene; where a dying Mozart dictates his Requiem Mass to Salieri, frantically trying to copy it all down. As Mozart and his fiercest adversary bicker and battle with scores of operatic terminologies – ostinatos, tenors, basses and A minors – it’s a hypnotic verbal assault.
And yet, in reality, it’s no fight. Salieri has no hope. He can’t even keep up as Mozart forces him down, again and again, further and further into the flames of woe. At one point, we even see the classical mastermind outstretch his hand in impassioned vigor, with Salieri doing the same, seeking to take his wisdom – the cinematic answer to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. We hear in the background his Requiem Mass brought to life, serving its intended purpose at last. A true mass of death, to announce the passing of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
I could go on about this movie forever, as I’m sure you can tell. But ultimately, all I can really do is implore any and all to watch it; as much as the movie might seem frivolous, pompous or dense. It has murder, plotting, jealousy, lust, creation, destruction, self-desolation and the rejection of God Himself. It is no less than a masterpiece, and one which deserves to be revisited, time and time again. Much like an opera from the mind of Herr Mozart, Amadeus is a gift that keeps on giving. And shall never wane.