Man vs. mediocrity in the classic film “Amadeus”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Pennsylvania Bridges writer Chuck Brutz has penned a couple of articles in which he’s celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the classic comedies Ghostbusters and Gremlins. His tribute to Gremlins is included in this edition, in fact. Editing these stories has also made me nostalgic for 1984, the same year my own favorite movie of all time was released.

In September of 1984, Director Milos Forman released his adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus. I first saw the film about a year later when it was available on video. I was eight years old. I loved the movie so much my grandmother later rented a VCR – this was 1985, mind you – so I could see it again. A family friend and mentor, the late Dr. Sylvia Hall, later purchased a copy of the film for me as a Christmas gift. She paid full price for the video, $80, and I cherished it like one loves a doll or a stuffed animal. I watched it over and over again until I drove my parents near insane and they would only allow me to watch it when they were out of the house. True story.

Point being, I’m not embarrassed to say I’ve seen Amadeus probably more than one hundred times. Ask my husband, ask my best friend, ask anyone who’s spent more than a few hours in my company. My love for the film has come up in conversation. And, even though I’ve watched it so many times, I come away from each fresh viewing with new insights.

At first glance, Amadeus is a period drama about the life and death of famed composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A closer look reveals the film has a much larger message.

The film opens with Antonio Salieri, who once served as court composer to Austrian Emperor Joseph II, confessing to no one in particular that he assassinated Mozart and then attempting suicide. Upon discovery by his servants, he is transported to a local insane asylum where he gives a lively and earnest confession in which he details the parallels between his life and Mozart’s.

I’ll reveal no further spoilers because if you haven’t seen this film, you should. What I will discuss is what, in my humble opinion, makes Amadeus stand out among the greats.

First, Peter Shaffer’s film adaptation of his original play is a brilliant piece of writing. The way he structures the narrative, using the “confession” of Salieri to drive the plot, is nothing short of genius. From the onset, we the viewer are forced to see Salieri as the villain, but by the end of the movie we are left wondering who is the real enemy. Because we are presented with all the details through Salieri’s viewpoint, we’re privy to details about the darker, more destructive side of Mozart’s nature.

Salieri’s an unreliable narrator, but we find ourselves sympathizing with him. The ability to make your audience fall a little in love with a villain, as I did long ago when I first saw the film, is a quality I as a writer can only hope I mimicked in my own novel, The Heart Absent. What is it they say, “Good writers borrow and great writers steal?” I fully admit to stealing from Peter Shaffer, who was probably my first true literary influence.

Second, the acting in Amadeus is top notch. The Academy noticed. The film won eight Oscars and garnered multiple other awards and nods for acting. Of particular note is F. Murray Abraham’s wonderful, moving and varied performance as Antonio Salieri. Abraham donned extensive makeup to play both the younger and older version of Salieri, and his performance was equally complex and stirring in both roles. Tom Hulce’s playful performance as a narcissistic, bawdy and tortured Mozart is also well worth mentioning.

Finally, the cinematography, costume, set design and above all – the music – was carefully thought out and masterfully orchestrated. The stirring soundtrack alone contains almost an hour and a half of both Mozart’s best compositions as well as the work of lesser known composers such as Mozart’s greatest rival, Antonio Salieri, a man who history would have already forgotten had it not been for his involvement with Mozart.

For that is the true message of Amadeus. It’s the portrayal of man versus mediocrity, a stunning depiction of the lengths to which an individual will go to ensure his or her place in the history books.

Or at least that’s what I take away from my last eleventy billion, as the kids would say, viewings of Amadeus.

Again, if you haven’t seen the movie, I urge you to look it up on Netflix. Somewhere in the boxes from my past, I still have my cherished VHS copy.
Commentary by Carla E. Anderton for Pennsylvania Bridges

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