Milos Forman isn’t concerned with history in Amadeus. Accuracy is here in a primal sense, aesthetically. But beyond certain elements, a lecture on period accuracy was never the director’s plan. No, Forman is concerned primarily with mood, atmosphere, and most of all, an unbridled energy. That energy is at the core of what makes Amadeus so completely brilliant. This is a period drama about a legendary classical composer, painted with a punk-rock sensibility and attention to all the right things which make it universal. It explodes from the screen like the insanely falsetto rattle of Mozart’s laugh, the hedonism not only shaping the character, but classifying the entire picture. Despite the seething jealousy driving our antagonist, Amadeus and his film will live on forever. This jealousy we speak of, it will die. It will wither away in a madhouse, inside the black heart of a bitter old man.
That bitter old man, the driving force of the narrative, is Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham in his Oscar-winning performance. Salieri’s tale of how he eventually killed Mozart is the framing device for the film. We meet him in his last days, confined to an insane asylum and consumed by guilt, bitterness, and spite toward God for never giving him the gifts he sought. Salieri poured his heart and soul into becoming a composer, a great composer, even vowing celibacy if it would allow him the success he desires. He tells his story to a young priest (an extension of God, that’s important) who is concerned for his “lost soul.” Salieri, now convinced there is no God, smirks at the earnestness of this young priest, and begins his tale in a subconscious effort to prove this man of the cloth has devoted his life to nothing in the end.
Salieri’s first glimpse of Mozart as a young man sets the table. In this stuffy world of Viennese Classicism, full of powdered wigs and stodgy clothing, constricted by formality, a world in which Salieri is devoutly invested, comes Mozart, a debauched young man who is everything Salieri is not and can never be in many ways. Introduced into the film chasing his future bride across the floor, speaking backwards, using words like “fart” and “shitwit,” Amadeus is a man from a modern world, trapped in a time where his sensibilities don’t belong. He is anti-authoritarian, slanted by a punk-rock mentality. His powdered wigs enhance this angle, spiked at times, a hint of pink at others. His clothes are purple, or blue, with a bit more shine than everyone else. And his laugh, created using the historical claims of women who knew him, has a rat-a-tat insanity, breaking apart the stuffy sitting rooms and formality.
This effortlessly brilliant composer is bucking the system because he can, and it almost immediately consumes Salieri.
Mozart insults Salieri from the beginning, changing one of his concerto’s and in the process elevating it beyond anything Salieri could have created within his own limitations. “How could this,” Salieri asks, “be the voice of God?” It is God with whom Salieri battles more openly; his desire to ruin Mozart is a secret mission which consumes him and, ultimately, ruins him. It’s not God who works through Mozart, it is Mozart himself who creates these masterpieces one after another, effortlessly. The picture is very much placed in this mindset. And Antonio Salieri’s devotion to his spiritual leader is a fallacy, a God who tortured him with the ear for perfection, but the creativity of a bargain-basement hack.
In the third act, darkness consumes the gleeful madness of the film and ultimately destroys both men. Salieri’s desire to ruin his adversary manifests itself beyond his mind, the gloom personifying in the film’s physical representation of Mozart’s father’s ghost. It is a chilling final act, almost belonging in a horror. And it is most certainly is horror – of the mind and the soul, and Salieri has now officially given up on his God.
Amadeus breezes through its three-hour run time because of Forman’s dedication to the energy and madness at the core of the story, his willingness to permeate the entire structure with this punk-rock persona, a perfect fit for 1984. This is a period drama about a classical composer, but it is a most modern film. Part of its universal modernity comes in Forman’s conscious decision to have the actors use their regular accents so as not to distract them or the picture. It remains relevant, wily and painted with a modern brush of mad genius. It is full of universal truths which transcend any historical era. This brilliant madman, gleefully anti-establishment, destroys another madman, poisoned by jealousy and, eventually, left without his God. The music is an important element, of course, and it’s well-documented accuracy creates a wonderful world of unforgettable sound. Everything here is entirely gorgeous and brimming with creative wonder. The film won a staggering eight Academy Awards from 11 nominations, and each is entirely earned. Like Mozart’s music, his film will live beyond us all.