A monumental cinematic experience overflowing with glorious music (obviously), resplendent production design, lavish costuming, impeccable performances, and gorgeous cinematography. That rare bird whose success is matched only by its ambition and whose creativity is equaled by its craftsmanship, an fabulous film fit for its formidable subject. Like Salieri, when confronted with the task of appraising and critiquing a work of such unbridled and overwhelming inspiration as this, one cannot help but feel inadequate to the task. From capo to coda, the whole thing is so breathless and inspired that at best we struggle to keep up as it flies through ideas, more often than not getting swept up in our own enjoyment. In this way, the film is like its source material, its eccentricities and intricacies inundating the viewer as Mozart’s “too many notes” dumbfound the listener—yet remove even one scene and the whole would be diminished, our inability to speak to the genius of this material thus being a gift of silence so as better to hear the voice of inspiration in the music. This is not to say that the film is ever as pretentious or austere as the times it portrays might suggest; rather, just as Mozart’s music and character juxtapose the vulgar and comical (what Salieri calls his “rusty squeezebox” harmony) with the sublime and delightful (“It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God”), so too does the film find a perfect balance between the original and the biographical, the playful and the serious, the composer’s spirit and the facts of his life.
What a formidable task Forman has given himself, to make a film that echoes the spirit of Mozart’s work, a cinematic experience with the same energy and cunning and charm in its visuals and dialogue as the composer provides in the soundtrack. How much easier it would have been to focus solely on the tragic soul that is Salieri: Certainly his is the more common tale, the journey of a poor country boy who defies his upbringing and family expectations to pursue his heart and his art, a typical rags to riches story where the transcendence of art is the elevation of the artist above his station, which here gets passed over entirely in the first few minutes of the film. We have seen this movie dozens of times and Hollywood elites have honed it into a blockbuster formula, so much so that part of the brilliance in Forman’s AMADEUS is precisely the straight rejection of this trope, not only in that Mozart is treated as a child prodigy whose genius is recognized and rewarded immediately—only to be practically punished for his dedication to artistic integrity in a riches to rags subversion of the genre—but moreover because Salieri’s aesthetic failure and personal frustration (even as he continues to enjoy social success) stems precisely from an inability to escape his formulaic nature, his grounding in a formula.
Perhaps this dialectic—the genius and the craftsman, the inspired and the formulaic—is best exhibited in the scenes where the two composers first meet, and, in the end, when they part ways forever. In the first moment, we see Salieri standing inflexibly over the shoulder of Emperor Joseph II, who rigidly hammers away at a rigid march composed for the occasion, staring at the sheet music intently so as to get every note right, Salieri’s music coming across as technically correct if inflexible and muddled; Mozart, on the other hand, forgoes the stiff staves of sheet music and plays the music back perfectly—beyond perfectly, actually, as the younger composer begins to improvise and elevate the piece, breaking it apart and breaking the rules and breaking Salieri’s self-composure as he does. Even when the two rivals come together at the movie’s climax, with Mozart in his deathbed soon to be as lifeless and stiff as Salieri’s music, the older maestro can barely keep up with the young genius, struggles to put into writing—that is to say, to make formulaic and followable—the flow of Mozart’s genius, struggles even to make sense of how these notes will relate.
Here and throughout, the movie suggests that creative genius cannot be controlled, cannot be made to fit a formula, that it, rather, like divinity itself, holds sway over our helpless desires and designs. In this way, AMADEUS is very much in line with so much of Forman’s earlier oeuvre, especially CUCKOO’S NEXT—which we get hints of when the camera passes through the elderly Salieri’s sanitarium—and the director’s Czech films. In all of these works, Forman depicts a society of stifling hierarchy and bureaucracy, which dull creativity and personal expression, but which can never fully contain the genius of life.
Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.