The AFI Top 100 Movies: Amadeus (#54)

Amadeus (1984)
Starring F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce and Elizabeth Berridge
Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Milos Forman

I think we’re getting into the stretch of the top 100 where there are nothing but good movies left; each of these movies does exactly what they set out to do, exemplifying the craft of film-making and storytelling in their own way. So instead of doing a traditional critique of strengths and weaknesses, or talking about the way performances or writing stand out, let’s just assume all of its excellent and talk about the themes, all right?

This is my second time seeing Amadeus, and for the AFI run we wanted to make sure we got the director’s cut. This adds about 20 minutes of additional footage to the movie, but I’m not sure it adds too much more texture to the film. The character of Stanze (Berridge) actually benefits the most from the extra scenes — a confrontation between her and Salieri (Abraham) puts her reaction to him in an entirely different (and much more understandable) perspective. Other than that, you could probably see the theatrical version and miss very little.

Still, even with the minor amount of padding the movie is so, so good. Salieri is a musician who develops an admiration and resentment of Mozart quite early on. While Mozart’s father encourages his son’s musical gift, Salieri’s own dad doesn’t see the point in it at all. Despite this early setback, he’s extremely motivated to be a great musician, devoting his life to the craft to the exclusion of all else. At first, Salieri is a chaste and pious man, who only wants the voice of God to speak through his writing. He wants to reflect the glory of creation, and he achieves enough success to be satisfied for a time.

However, Amadeus rolls in, vulgar and immature and possessed with impossible talent. The rest of the film is Salieri struggling to make sense of his position. He knows enough about music to know how much better Mozart is, and the fact that God saw fit to give so much talent to so despicable a man drives him quite literally crazy. Despairing of his own talent, Salieri eventually turns his back on God and vows to destroy his creation. As you might suspect, things go downhill from there.

Even when Salieri is doing some of the most underhanded things, you really feel for him. I’d venture that he’s one of the most sympathetic, complete villains in movie history — make no mistake, he is not a good man, but there is so much to admire him for, so many points you agree with him on. His struggle is entirely relatable. How many times have we been faced with the fact that someone is so much better at something we’d really give anything to do that well? And how many times has that person, blessed with incomparable talent, sees their gift as no big deal, takes it for granted? It’s a universal frustration amongst storytellers, writ large by Murray’s passionate, controlled performance.

What I find most interesting about Salieri as a character is his tragic flaw. He’s a smart, capable fellow, who can be shrewd and charming by turns. But he lacks grace and the power to accept his position in life. Granted, it’s an incredibly bitter pill to swallow, but he also forgets that even though he has meager musical talent compared to Mozart he outshines his rival in a number of ways. He’s far more responsible, knowledgeable about the ways of the world, able to navigate the political situation of his day with more aplomb. Mozart is a genius, but that same gift makes it impossible for him to get along with people in so many ways. Salieri, though he’s mediocre, benefits from the constraint of his talent.

That’s small comfort to most of us, admittedly. It stings to know that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be better than average at certain things. But acceptance of that can be liberating; instead of judging yourself by the impossible standards of your favorite genius, you gain a more modest perspective that allows you to make and measure progress in a much more reasonable way. Ambition carries us further than we’d ever thought we’d go, but if you leave it unchecked it leads to the bitterness and resentment we find in Salieri. His desire comes from a pure, good place, but it’s twisted by his inability to accept humility.

And even though Amadeus is this epic movie full of powdered wigs and severe 18th century clothing, the themes that run through it are universal. Most of us, on some level, want to excel at something. And it’s an uncomfortable truth for us that it’s quite likely we never will. How do you deal with that? Especially when the truly talented waste the ability you would kill for all of the time? The answer, on its vaguest terms, is not like Salieri. Mozart thinks of him as a guide and a friend who comes to rescue him from the excesses of his own personality, and in a way he’s right. In his efforts to ruin Mozart, Salieri comes very close to actually saving him, and the true tragedy of the movie is that he never got out of his own way enough to do that. Salieri spends so much of the movie wondering why God saw fit to give him enough ability to recognize Amadeus’ talent, but not enough to match it. Perhaps it was so Salieri could preserve and protect it for as long as possible, to learn from it.

That’s the lesson I take from the film. That true beauty and genius should be celebrated, even when it’s not your own. That it’s OK to be a small talent in a big, crowded field. That in so many ways, maintaining your perspective keeps you sane. And that even the most sickeningly talented people have their own troubles, so it pays to be kind when you can.

Rating: 9/10

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