Sunday, July 30, 2017


SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

I am not knowledgeable about classical music, nor am I well versed in the lives of composers. I will discuss this 1984 Oscar winner for Best Picture on its own terms, and not explore artistic or historical inconsistencies. The film presents the theme of the appreciation of works of art divorced from the assessment of the artist who creates those works. In this story, the theme is distilled by exploring the relationship between its two characters, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Amsterdam, winner of the Best Actor Oscar), and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce).
Milos Forman (also an Oscar winner here) directed Peter Shaffer’s Oscar winning adaptation of his own award winning play. The title is, of course, significant. Mozart’s middle name means “beloved of God.” And it is the perception that God chose the vulgar Mozart instead of the devout Salieri to be his instrument that drives the Italian composer to distraction. Indeed, we find Salieri in a mental institution after shouting out to the dead Mozart for absolution (a word that reappears later) for having been the great composer’s assassin, and cutting his own throat. Since he seemed to want forgiveness for his sins, a priest visits Salieri to hear his confession. When he asks the cleric if he knows who he is, the priest dismisses the question, and says, “It makes no difference. All men are equal in God’s eyes.” Salieri sarcastically responds by saying, “Are they?” It is this point that moves him to tell his story, which turns out to be more of an explanation of his vile acts than an apology for committing them.
Salieri asks the priest if he knows any of his compositions, which he doesn’t. But he recognizes one of Mozart’s tunes. We immediately see that Mozart’s works endure, but Salieri’s limited talent had a short-term popularity. The scene also illustrates a contradiction in Salieri’s character. He says he had a desire even as a child to be God’s composer, to be the deity’s voice. But, he doesn’t pledge to be devout out of true unselfish religious belief. Instead he made a bargain with God. He said he would be chaste, work hard, and show humility only if God would then make him a great composer. In his plea to God he said, “Let me celebrate Your glory through music and be celebrated myself. Make me famous through the world, dear God. Make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote.” He pretends to be a pious man, but he is actually full of envy and plots for himself, telling God, in essence, “I’ll scratch your back if scratch mine.”

As a youth, Salieri’s father did not support his son’s musical ambitions. After submitting his proposition to God in the form of a prayer, Salieri says God accepted the pact by performing a miracle - the death of his father so that he could pursue his musical ambitions. Now, what does that say about the man, who is so selfish, that he considers his father’s demise to be a marvelous act of God. He eventually becomes the court composer for Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) in Vienna. He says that the emperor did not have an ear for music, but he loved Salieri’s work, so the composer was satisfied. Salieri is more concerned about acceptance that accomplishment.
Salieri says he had heard of Mozart’s amazing abilities to perform and compose at very early ages. He assumes the man will be a person of admirable qualities to have been blessed by God with such talent. He first sees Mozart at an event where the young composer is to present his music to the Archbishop of Salzburg. Salieri sneaks into a room filled with desserts and tastes one (Salieri’s love of sweets is shown throughout the film, including one treat named “Nipples of Venus,” pointing to his carnal, not spiritual wants). A young man bursts in with a young woman, and proceeds to make excremental and sexual jokes. When Salieri realizes that the boisterous, bawdy youth with a high-pitched giggle is Mozart, Salieri is appalled. Mozart plays a game with the girl where he speaks sentences backwards. It seems silly, but Mozart says that the whole world is backwards. It is an insightful comment because to a person of his genius, who wants to move forward, those with an old-fashioned mentality are just a hindrance as they do not have his revolutionary vision.
The Archbishop of Salzburg is one of those obstacles, who wants Mozart to return to his home and learn better manners. Mozart’s father, Leopold (Roy Dotrice) eventually persuades the archbishop to have him stay in Vienna. The emperor wants to meet Mozart, and Salieri composes a welcoming march for Mozart. When he finds the way it should sound, he looks up at a crucifix of Jesus and says thank you. While he slaves at writing, we have shots of Mozart being frivolous, trying on wigs. The contrast between the serious and the fanciful is stressed here, and we can feel some sympathy for Salieri, since achievement comes so easily to Mozart. When the march is played, Mozart memorizes it immediately, and proceeds to show his arrogance by critiquing it and improving it on the keyboard. This action just infuriates Salieri more. However, when he hears Mozart’s music, he says it is the voice of God. He asks why would God choose this obscene child as his vessel. Salieri admires the talent, but can’t get past the kind of person Mozart is. His torment is palpable as he questions why would God put a longing in Salieri to sing to Him, and then make him “mute.” After Mozart shows the inadequacies of his composition, Salieri again looks at the crucifix and says thank you, but it is with anger this time, as if to say, “Thanks for nothing.”

Mozart wants to write an opera that is set in a harem. He is a rule-breaker because he says the tired repetition of stories about exalted heroes and mythic figures are devoid of true emotion. He wants to humanize the music, show real love in his stories. He is concerned with feelings not just form. Even though his music comes from God, his inspiration comes from this world. The emperor allows him to compose the opera, which includes a female singer who Salieri has taught, and for whom he lusts. But, because of his deal with God, he has never touched her. So when he realizes the “creature” (as he refers to Mozart) had her sexually, he is outraged. He admits that at this point it was the first time that he had violent thoughts.

Mozart wants the approval of the emperor because he is a type of father figure, and Mozart had definite paternal issues. His father exploited his son’s genius by having him perform all over Europe. He played before monarchs and the Pope. Because he was robbed of his childhood, he never has had a chance to mature and move out of it. He is in a state of arrested development as a person, although he is far advanced as a musician. His father forbids him to marry at this point, not believing him to be ready for that stage of life. However, Mozart is infatuated with Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge). He marries her, but he has no life skills, drinks too much, spends money way beyond their means, and she thus is constantly trying to get him to earn a living. The emperor has a niece in need of musical instruction. He suggests Mozart to his musical staff, but Salieri undermines the appointment. Constanze, not knowing Salieri’s true feelings, asks for his help to get the appointment. She brings his music to show that Mozart is worthy. She can’t leave it with him since they are the original manuscripts. When Salieri looks at them, he realizes that there are no corrections. He says it was like Mozart was taking dictation from God. The emperor, unable to fully appreciate Mozart’s achievements, said there were too many notes in his music. Salieri counters this argument when he says while reading the music, “Displace one note, and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.” He goes on to say that “I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink-strokes at an absolute beauty.” Those words show that Salieri feels as if he is being locked out of the holy kingdom. Salieri literally swoons while reading, and drops the sheets of music. But, instead of helping to nourish the output of God’s work for all to savor, he sternly turns his back on Constanze and walks away, showing he is only concerned with his own ego. His resentment for not being justly rewarded by God now becomes a declaration of war against the deity, as he tosses his crucifix into the fireplace, in essence condemning Jesus to a fiery hell in his mind.

Mozart is pleased to have his father come to stay with him, because he wants his love. But, Leopold has nothing but criticism because his son lives in poverty, has no students to bring in a steady income, and the house is a mess. Mozart wants to take his father out and celebrate his arrival, so they buy costumes for a masked ball. Leopold’s costume is a bit scary, as it is all black with a headpiece that shows the face of tragedy on one side and that of comedy on the other. But, even the one with the smiling visage is spooky, since it is displayed with the dark color. Leopold disapproves of his son’s rowdy friends. Salieri is also there, in a mask, spying on Mozart. When Mozart is challenged to play works of other composers, Salieri, in disguise, mentions himself. Mozart then shows his disdain for Salieri’s work, doing a burlesque interpretation. This action further enrages Salieri, who says that Mozart’s obscene giggle was God laughing at Salieri. We again are witness to the man’s inclination to be self-centered, acting like the universe revolves around him. He says that before he leaves this earth, he will be the one laughing at God.

Salieri works on ways to undermine Mozart. He anonymously pays a woman to be a maid for the Mozarts, pretending it is from an admirer. He uses her to spy on Mozart. Leopold doesn’t like the idea, and gets into a huge fight with Constanze. Mozart, who just wants to enjoy life, is sullen because of the tension in his home. He wants to do an Italian opera based on a French play, which becomes The Marriage of Figaro. Through his spy, Salieri learns of Mozart’s project, and tries to nip it in the bud, since the play was banned by the emperor. He feels that it stirs up animosity between the masses. But, Mozart convinces the emperor that he has no interest in politics, and that his opera is about the love of a common man, not about his anger of being oppressed. The Italian composers say it is a vulgar farce. Mozart tells them, “Come on now, be honest! Which one of you wouldn’t rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules? Or Horatius, or Orpheus, people so lofty they sound as if they shit marble!” He offends with his language, but tells the emperor that although he is a vulgar man, he says his music is not. He makes the distinction between a play and an opera, where he can have numerous people singing at once for twenty minutes at a stretch because in a play it would be noise, but in musical composition, there will be harmony.

It seems as if he will get the go-ahead with the opera, but again, Salieri finds out from the maid that there will be dancing at Figaro’s wedding. The emperor has forbidden a ballet in an opera. Under the pretense of protecting Mozart from the emperor’s wrath, he tells the musical director about the ballet. The director cuts out that music. Mozart seeks Salieri’s help, saying he was so frustrated he tried to burn the manuscript, but his wife saved it. Salieri says, “Thank God,” ironically, since that is who is now his enemy. As a composer he yearns for great music, but he despises the instrument that produces that artistic achievement. Salieri can’t reconcile these opposite feelings inside of himself. He tells Mozart that he will intervene on his behalf, but does nothing to help Mozart. During rehearsal, Mozart has the actors dance without music to show how silly it looks. It just so happens that the emperor sits in on this session, sees how ridiculous the dancing is without the music, and says it should be restored, again thwarting Salieri’s plans.

When Figaro is performed, Salieri says the ending is like a divine absolution granted to everyone present. In a way, it is what Mozart seeks from his father, and what we first hear Salieri ask for at the beginning of the film involving his participation in Mozart’s destruction. Salieri finds a victory over Mozart despite the triumph of the music when the emperor yawns once during the opera. It closes after only nine performances. Mozart goes to Salieri to ask why the run ended so abruptly. It is here where Salieri sounds like a modern network TV or Hollywood movie producer who caters to the lower artistic expectations of the audience. He says to Mozart, “You make too many demands on the royal ear. The poor man can’t concentrate for more than an hour. You gave him four … I think you overestimate our dear Viennese, my friend. You know you didn’t give them a good bang at the end of songs to let them know when to clap.” This scene is followed appropriately by Salieri conducting his latest work which delivers all the bang needed to please the masses, and the emperor heaps praises on him. However, he only gets left-handed compliments from Mozart.
Mozart learns of his father’s passing. It so upsets him that his father died while still considering his son a failure at life, that Mozart writes Don Giovanni, which, according to Salieri, has a resurrected, frightening apparition who stands for Mozart’s father. He is dressed in black, as was Leopold at the masquerade, exposing to the audience his son’s betrayal. He comes back from the dead to accuse him of his sin, and send him to hell. Salieri used his influence so that the opera played for only five performances, but Salieri secretly was there for every one of them. Since he can see how Leopold’s influence haunts Mozart from beyond the grave, Salieri hatches a diabolical plan. Mozart’s failure placed such a strain on his family life that Constanze’s mother convinced her to take their child and leave for a while to relieve the toll her husband’s irresponsible living was taking on his wife. Mozart drinks all of the time, goes out all night to party, and becomes ill. Salieri appears in the masquerade costume worn by Leopold at Mozart’s door. He says that he wants Mozart to write a requiem mass for someone who should have had one. He pays Mozart for it. Mozart is not sure if it is his dead father who is commissioning his own funeral work. Salieri says he wants to steal the requiem from Mozart and pass it off as his own. He would play it at Mozart’s funeral, earning Salieri fame.
Mozart’s vaudeville friends make a deal with him to write a fanciful work for which he will earn fifty percent of the earnings. This work becomes The Magic Flute, which is very successful. But, Mozart is now dying as he is writing both works at the same time. As the maid no longer wants any part of Mozart’s decline, she does reveal that he is working on an opera, not the requiem. Salieri shows up in costume saying Mozart must finish the requiem by the end of the next day. He pays him more money. While playing keyboards at the performance of The Magic Flute, Mozart collapses. Salieri is there, and doesn’t want him dead until he finishes the requiem. He helps Mozart get to his home, and Salieri accompanies him. When there is knocking at the door, Mozart assumes it is the man in black. He tells Salieri to ask for more money. Instead, it is the vaudevillians with half the box office proceeds. Salieri pretends that it is from the dark figure, spurring Mozart to finish the requiem. Salieri offers to help him finish. Mozart, ironically, asks forgiveness of Salieri (that absolution again), because he believes he is a friend that he doubted. Mozart is so weak that he dictates to Salieri. This symbolic act is a dramatization of what Salieri said happens to Mozart when he composes. He said God dictated to Mozart. Well, now, God tells Mozart what to write, and he dictates it to Salieri. He is basically barging in on the process, usurping Mozart’s role. His attachment to the effort does not make Salieri great; it is the work of art that is produced that should be praised.
Constanze returns, and is not happy to see Salieri there, since she remembered when he refused to help her husband concerning the emperor’s niece. She takes the manuscript from Salieri and puts it away, robbing him of his phony association with greatness. Mozart dies, and he is buried in a mass grave reserved for the poverty-stricken. We return to the present with Salieri as an old man in the asylum. His self-centeredness has not diminished as he complains that Mozart’s name has become more and more renowned with the passing of time, and Salieri has been allowed by God to live as a kind of torture to see his popularity diminish into nonexistence. He condemns God for killing his chosen one, Mozart, just at the moment to deny Salieri any greatness by stealing his music. As he is wheeled out, Salieri becomes a sort of parody of a deity. He says he grants absolution (yes, forgiveness again, but he has no power to grant anything) to all the inmates. He says, “I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.”

Salieri said, in the end, he would be laughing at God. But, the last sound we hear is Mozart’s giggle. For his selfish, destructive ways, Salieri has been tormented, and God is getting the last laugh.

The next film is Broadcast News.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please share your thoughts about the movies discussed here.