In my first post on Amadeus (1984, dir. Milos Forman), I explored the basic problem with the film, namely that the claim that Antonio Salieri had poisoned Wolfgang Mozart doesn’t really hold up. The great composer’s symptoms don’t bear much resemblance to the symptoms of poison, and it’s hard to see why Salieri would have wanted to poison Mozart; Salieri’s career was at its pinnacle in 1791, while Mozart was struggling and enjoying only sporadic success with his operas. So does this mean we just need to write the film off as poor history?
No. I think there’s another way to think about the film, that it represents not historical fact, but rather Salieri’s fantasies and inner demons. Screenwriter Peter Shaffer depicts Salieri as being driven by envy of Mozart’s superior talent as a composer. But in the 1780s, few people saw Mozart as the musical genius he is today remembered for being. He failed to win an appointment to any high musical office, and wasn’t even able to get himself appointed as a royal tutor. Some of his operas were successful by the standards of the day, but others rather less so. He wasn’t quite as penniless as the film suggests, but he was constantly forced to borrow money from people. He was undoubtedly a musical innovator, but that may have made many important people shy away from patronizing him. Instead, he was seen more as a former child prodigy, someone whose work was interesting, but perhaps not fully mature. It’s only in retrospect that we can see how important and innovative Mozart truly was.
Furthermore, Salieri was highly acclaimed. He produced more than 35 operas, many (though not all) of which were quite popular. His operas were also quite influential on other musicians in part because of his various innovations, and he was a sought-after teacher; among his most important pupils were Beethoven, Liszt, and Schubert. His appointment of Royal Kapellmeister demonstrates that he was considered one of the great composers of Europe and it’s a measure of his influence at Joseph II’s court. He was also financially successful. Objectively, there’s no reason that Salieri would feel inferior to Mozart.
Unless Salieri simply struggled with feelings of inferiority in later life. The last two decades of his life, unfortunately, saw his compositions gradually fall out of popularity; by the time he died, there were fewer and fewer productions of his operas being staged. In some ways, the tragedy of Salieri’s life was that he outlived the popularity of his day, because tastes were beginning to shift to Mozart’s style. Mozart’s early and mysterious death proved to be a boost to his career; there was far more interest in his music after his death than before it. By the last few years of his life, Salieri may well have felt that Mozart had eclipsed him.
Shaffer captures this nicely right at the opening of Amadeus. The priest (Richard Frank) who visits Salieri in the asylum has some musical training, so Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) plays two of his compositions, which the priest fails to recognize. Then he plays one of Mozart’s, and the priest recognizes it quickly. To a man used to success and popular acclaim, we can imagine that such a situation would have been quite painful.
So I’d like to propose that what we see in the film is not meant to be historical at all (in fact Shaffer has said as much). Rather, I see the film as representing Salieri’s fantasy of the past, profoundly colored by his growing sense of personal failure. Salieri is clearly not a reliable narrator (and remember, the whole film is a flashback narrated by Salieri). He depicts Mozart (Tom Hulce) as being far more vulgar and ill-mannered than he actually was. He sees Mozart as mocking him, and upstaging him when Mozart first meets him. Despite this, he also depicts Mozart as liking and trusting him, and turning to him repeatedly for assistance and guidance. It is hard to reconcile these two ideas unless we assume that Salieri is simply not viewing Mozart rationally.
Similarly, Salieri rewrites his own sexual history. The real Salieri was married, but the cinematic Salieri is unmarried and dedicated to chastity until he abandons it after he grows angry with God. When Constanze Mozart (Elizabeth Berridge) approaches Salieri asking for help for her husband, Salieri tells her to return later that day because he will only help her if she has sex with him. The demand clearly upsets her, but when she returns that evening, he depicts Frau Mozart as being eager to have sex with him; she seems comfortable with the idea, and undresses without being told to, even to the point of baring her breasts. At that point, he humiliates her by summoning a servant and telling him to escort her out. But apparently she never tells Mozart about this incident, since he continues to trust Salieri. Salieri’s version of this event plays more as a male fantasy than as reality. So I propose that this sequence is really a representation of what the elderly Salieri wished had happened, rather than something he did, an expression of an unconsummated desire for Constanze that troubled him.
Likewise his claims of murdering Mozart are erratic. At the start of the film he claims to have killed the great composer, and partway through, he suggests that he struggled to find a way to do the deed. But at the end of the film, he admits to nothing worse than thwarting Mozart’s career and waging psychological warfare against the man. So he denies what he has claimed he has done. Again, I think his claim of murder represents something Salieri wishes he had done, not something we are intended to think he actually did.
Salieri claims that he disguised himself as the Black Messenger, using a costume that Leopold Mozart once wore. But as I related last time, that story is false as well, since the man dressed in grey, not black, and did not wear a mask. But the story of the Grey Messenger was well-known by Salieri’s last years, so Salieri could easily have co-opted it to make himself the man who helped hasten Mozart’s demise.
And, of course, we must remember that Salieri is in an asylum after attempting to cut his throat with a razor. And at the end of the film, he declares himself the “patron saint of mediocrity”, Clearly, this man has serious issues. Viewing him as an unreliable narrator who weaves a literally fantastic story for us makes a good deal of sense.