Understanding the intent of a director is of paramount importance when evaluating a film. Without grasping that Milos Forman did not set out to make Amadeus as a lush period piece on the life of Mozart, but instead a quirky game on reimaging of the life, one could easily point out the historical discrepancies and American accents throughout the film. To hold the former expectation toward Amadeus is unreasonable. The very premise of the movie should be indication enough given that the claim that Antonio Salieri (here played by F. Murray Abraham), the court composer for Emperor Joseph Ii (Jeffrey Jones), murdered Mozart is unsubstantiated at best. In fact, while Salieri was jealous of Mozart in real life, the two had a mostly amicable relationship. The latter standard is absurd as no one would have been complaining had British actors been cast, supposedly adding class to the accents. That wouldn’t have made sense either since German was the predominant language in Vienna.
Amadeus is similar to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette in that both are punked-up versions of historic lives. In neither film does it feel like the past, but (in Amadeus anyway) an almost Mel Brooksian spoofing costume epic, and that is high praise.
Given the effect that Forman was aiming for, Tom Hulce was a great casting choice for Mozart, bringing a youthful prankish spirit to the musical genius. He shakes up the older generation of music lovers with his provocative symphonies, his giddy laugh, and irreverence for the Emperor’s court. As much as he composed about love and its meaning, Mozart had a flimsy attitude toward matrimony. Mozart, who is the epitome of high culture today, was considered low class in his time, proving that cultural concepts are often relative. But if Mozart was misunderstood during his lifetime, he was also widely reveled by others. As hard as his arrogance was to take, Mozart was one of those people who really are as good as they say they are.
It is Salieri, however, that is used as the protagonist decoy of the story. He is an earnest man who is intimidated by and resentful of Mozart, while also having admired him since his youth. He even goes as far as defending him against charges of blasphemy before the Emperor’s court. It isn’t hard to see why this story of an obsessed fan that pushed his idol to death resonated so strongly in the 80s. Without the fuzzy wigs and European palaces, this same story could take place in any American high schools and be about a studious lad struggling to impress while watching the class clown succeed effortlessly. We first see the anger in Salieri’s eyes when Mozart presents a rearranged version of his work.
Salieri makes an evil turn (despite his fake “promises to God”) when he takes advantage of Mozart’s young bride (Elizabeth Berridge) Constanze, who is the ony purely sympathetic character in the film, humiliating her. Salieri becomes a difficult figure to sympathize with. He’s manipulative, stews in anger, and takes delight in Mozart’s misfortunes. In the frame narrative set in 1823, an old and raving Salieri confesses his guilt to the asylum priest. By then, Salieri has lost it, although we do have to wonder how reliable he is as a narrator. For all we know, the bulk of the movie could be a fabrication of his delirium after a forgotten life.
At numerous points, Amadeus deliberately confuses the viewers in identifying Mozart’s father Leopold (Roy Dotrice) with Salieri. The first time we see Leopold Mozart, he is wrapped in a dark cloak. For a moment we think this could be Salieri, who has turned against God (in the previous scene he was shown throwing a crucifix into the fire), until we realize not only that this is Mozart’s father, but that his visit is not entirely a pleasant surprise for the Mozarts. He is an overbearing man and highly critical of his son’s taste in music. At the masquerade ball it is not with his father that Mozart runs afoul but Salieri, albeit it unknowingly. A drunken Mozart makes a mockery of one of Salieri’s tunes, unaware that the composer is in the audience, wearing a dark cloak much like that of his father. When a maid appears at Mozart’s door, the composer mistakenly believes that she was hired by his father, when she is actually a spy for Salieri. Mozart, like the viewer, has confused the doing of Salieri with that of his father. This confusion seems rooted in an oedipal resentment Mozart subconsciously held for both men. Both Salieri and Leopold were patriarchal figures in the musician’s life, but both (Amadeus hints) were instrumental to his destruction.
Leopold Mozart is always associated with the underworld, largely due to the color of his attire, and Salieri follows that path. In the opera Mozart composes after his father’s death, Don Giovanni, the older Mozart is depicted as a sinister apparition. Perhaps, this was Mozart’s closure to his father’s menace.
Amadeus shifts to a darker tone after the death of Leopold, and the film seems to be playing with allegories of resurrection when a mysterious and foreboding masked figure appears at Mozart’s door to commission him for work. Of course, we figure out that this is Salieri and this composition will be the one that ultimately brings Mozart to his death, but to Mozart this is his father continuing to haunt him from beyond the grave.
Maybe Mozart’s gift for composing came so easily because he created art from the very life he knew. He drew sources from his domineering father, shrill relatives, and suppressed sexual desire. Amadeus is not, contrary to many claims, a costume drama in the traditional sense. It doesn’t tell us what happened or is here to teach. Rather, it is a hypothetical look into the mind of a genius, his art, his triumph, and the forces that led to his downfall, which is not unlike the sad fate of many contemporary musicians (although dying at 35, Mozart avoided the 27 Club). It wouldn’t have been such a dramatic and yet lively experience otherwise.