I don’t speak the language of classical music. Not because I don’t like it, not because I can’t recognise it as beautiful or brilliant, not out of some sort of inverted snobbery. It’s simply that it takes much work for me, like a very alien language. I don’t have the time or energy for another language in my life, so I leave well alone.
As proof that this is the case, not dislike or ignorance or whatever else people have opined to me as the reason, I offer consistently one of my favourite films. Amadeus was released in 1984, the year of my eleventh birthday. I can’t recall when I first saw the film – I suspect about 3 years later on its television premiere – but it made a huge impact on me. In the year of forty-first birthday that impact hasn’t diminished.
It’s directed by Milos Forman (most famous for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and adapted by the great Peter Shaffer from his own stage play. It tells the story of Mozart’s professional life through the lens of court composer Antonio Salieri, a man tormented by his own relative mediocrity. It opens with an elderly Salieri in some kind institution for the mentally ill, claiming he killed Mozart and unburdening himself to a priest. Through that relationship, with the priest claiming to offer God’s forgiveness, Salieri confesses his awe, jealousy and manipulation of the young genius, ultimately playing a key role in driving him to an early, overworked death.
It’s majestic, moving and utterly beautiful. It’s a study of guilt – who doesn’t reach Salieri’s age without secrets they need absolution from? It’s a study in the corrosive powers of success – the film’s Mozart is perhaps most akin to a modern-day elite sportsman, feted with praise and money he doesn’t have the maturity to handle. It’s a study in marriage under pressure – Constanze, Mozart’s wife, is brilliantly played by Elizabeth Berridge; devoted to her husband, but one partner always just out of reach of the other.
Most of all, it’s a study in creativity and what we who benefit from the creativity want the creators to be like. Mozart should be as sublimely beautiful, dignified and upright as his creations. Instead, as this film and Tom Hulce’s performance renders him, he’s an obnoxious brat with an annoying laugh, no discipline and no self-control. It’s that laugh that divides viewers; it’s that laugh that Salieri hears even before he first lays eyes on the man he discovers to be Mozart. How can this man create such beauty? Thereby hangs the crux of the film, and Salirei’s existential torment. It drives deals he strikes with himself and with God; it defies belief and offends the ears as much the music entrances them. It reaches its height in a spellbinding, unforgettable scene where Salieiri helps a bed-ridden Mozart work on his Requiem (a piece commissioned by a shadowy figure Mozart doesn’t realise to be Salieri himself). Mozart hears the music in his head and dictates it to Salieri, who even then can barely keep up. Even with his nemesis at death’s door, he can’t hope to match him.
Based in truth as it is (though how true it actually is, I don’t know), the film achieves a kind of truth much more true than mere facts, uncovering the deeper realities of limited humanity’s quest for transcendence. That’s why, for instance, the American accents the actors keep throughout the film don’t bother me one jot. The film is so true that the accents are frankly irrelevant; I’m not distracted by them, which I most certainly would have been by bad European accent imitations.
It’s a film which teaches me about beauty, hope, work, creativity and the freedom to take all my prayers – not just the safe, nice ones – to God and leave theme there. In my life as I live it, it’s unmatched, unique and irreplaceable. I can’t imagine my life without it; and I don’t own a single note of Mozart’s music.
I rated this film 5/5 on rottemtomatoes.com and 10/10 on imdb.com
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