Thursday, February 9, 2012

Amadeus Blog-a-thon: What Was, What Should Have Been

This week, a number of bloggers and movie critics are joining forces to blog about one of the greatest Best Picture winners of all time, Milos Forman’s Amadeus. This is my post in that series. You can find links to all the others here.

Recently, the literary journal, Image, chose film critic Steven D. Greydanus of The National Catholic Register and Decent Films as their Artist of the Month. In the profile written about him on the Image website, he remarks that "one of the most intriguing critical theories I've ever encountered is Graham Greene's philosophy that film should reveal both the world as it is and as it should be."

Reading this quote, I felt that Greene (via Greydanus) had to cut straight to the heart of what I love most about Milos Forman's Oscar-winning film, Amadeus, and especially its climactic scene.

In this scene, we come to what we've been waiting for from the very beginning--the moment in which Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) will "kill" his rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce). Of course, it's an exaggeration to say that Salieri kills him, though he does wear him down--financially, mentally, and perhaps even spiritually--over the course of several years, using his power as court composer to secretly deny Mozart success whenever possible, all because it would seem that God has chosen Mozart--and not Salieri--as an instrument of glory.

As in the rest of Amadeus, Forman approaches this moment with great restraint. He keeps his camera at a comfortable distance and trades an intrusive score for the music of Peter Shaffer's dialogue and the earnest performances of Hulce and Abraham, creating a sense great intimacy, as if we are with them in that room, in that house, in Vienna.

The scene isn't completely devoid of music, though.  Forman punctuates the bare dialogue with snippets of Mozart's own Confutatis Maledictus. In fact, what we are seeing is its very creation. Mozart lies on his bed, feverish and soaked in sweat. Salieri sits across from him, his scarecrow frame hunched over a small desk, quill in hand. He is transcribing Mozart's last masterpiece, and the experience for him is like being in the presence of God. For years, Salieri has marveled at Mozart's creations from a distance, hating him for his talent and yet loving his music. He is secretly, and against his own wishes, Mozart's biggest fan.

As Salieri frantically copies down note after note, we hear Mozart's music in a way that's both diegetic and non-diegetic at the same time. On the one hand, the music originates from the world of the story (diegetic), but the music isn't actually present in the scene--only the audience hears it (non-diegetic).

Except, that's not quite true. All throughout Amadeus, Forman uses music to underscore both the on-screen action and to dramatize either Mozart's genius or Salieri's madness (or in some cases, the thin line separating the two).

But what does all this have to do with Greene's belief that film should show us the world as it is and the world as it should be?

It's in the way that we can so completely see through Salieri to his pride, his pettiness, his bitter sense of entitlement. We know why he is attentive to Mozart during these last moments. As always, his own glory is foremost on his mind.

And yet, that doesn't explain his expression of undisguised awe as he looks into his rival's eyes and says, without a hint of exaggeration, "You are the greatest composer known to me." Salieri is still acting out of revenge--that's only too clear--but now we catch a glimpse of sincerity, of humility, and even remorse, especially as Mozart, barely able to speak, whispers to him, "I was so foolish. I thought you did not care for my work, or me. Forgive me."

These men are not adversaries now, only musicians--friends, almost--putting their talents together and laying aside their pride to produce something that celebrates and reflects the divine. It's both a glimpse of things as they were and things as they could've been--Greene's theory clothed in flesh--making the moment all the more heartrending, all the more beautiful.

1 comment:

  1. Great thoughts on a great film. I actually just got done showing it to my freshmen history class (I was using it to illustrate the birth of the idea of genius in the Enlightenment). I like to analyze the film in terms of Girard's concept of mimetic desire: the idea that we only begin to desire something when we see someone else desiring it, and that this "triangular desire" leads to envy and a destructive impulse. Certainly true in the case of Salieri (at least Shaffer's version of him).


    Asher Gelzer-Govatos