By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
PPM Picks is a weekly feature offering film, book, or music recommendations from our staff. The links provided in the article go to product listings on Amazon. Purchases made using these links support the Presidential Pet Museum. That said, we were not paid to review or promote any of the items mentioned. We just legitimately like them.
Very few of us find ourselves at the pinnacle of our fields. There is always someone with a better reputation, a better position, a better salary than ours. This usually doesn’t cause significant strife, because most of us never meet those lionized figures. When we do–at a conference or a cocktail party or a book-signing–they behave well (or well enough, anyway) that we can accept their superiority.
Imagine, though, that the acknowledged master of your field is not only someone you know, but someone you know to be a boorish, spoiled jerk. Imagine knowing that they are better than you–far better than you–at work you have devoted your life to, and they know it, too. Imagine this rude, condescending genius becoming your co-worker.
This is the situation in which Salieri finds himself. He has devoted his life to God and music, vowing chastity and charity in exchange for his modest talents. He is Court Composer to the Emperor of Austria-Hungary. Suddenly, the childish Mozart arrives, full of talent and lust. Salieri’s faith is crushed, and he vows to punish God for this indignity.
Amadeus is not a biography of Mozart. It shows little concern for historical accuracy (despite the impeccable attention to period detail shown in its costumes and sets), but subtly undermines any such criticisms by telling its tale through the spiteful eyes of Salieri, who is both elderly and residing in a Viennese madhouse. This is Mozart through Salieri’s scornful eyes, and he comes off as obnoxious, lascivious, and immature. This is the warped lens of envy, a justification for the murder Salieri claims to have committed.
The film won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (Milos Forman, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and Best Actor (F. Murray Abraham as Salieri). It is lush and beautiful, a virtually perfect film. It’s hard to deny the well-crafted characters and dialogue of Peter Shaffer’s screenplay (adapted from his play). Few, if any, films have ever captured the beauty of music this well. (And Mozart’s work is as wonderful booming through your speakers as everyone onscreen believes it to be.) On paper, a film about a long-dead composer might seem dry and chilly, but Amadeus is deeply moving and deeply funny.
That humor is the film’s masterstroke. Watching a whiny brat continually triumph over his more mature rival is akin to watching the Roadrunner outwit Wile E. Coyote. Perhaps God is laughing at poor, bitter Salieri. We certainly are. He is a mediocrity, consumed by his insecurities in the face of genius. Yet those laughs eventually give way to stunned recognition. By the film’s end, we realize that maybe God is laughing at us, too.