The Artist’s Lament: A Love Letter to Miloš Forman’s Amadeus (1984)

Mozart and I send loads of warm and toasty guten tags to you, beloveds.

I was walking through Mozart’s Viennese apartment at Domgasse 5 nearly three weeks ago now, and I really would very much like to go back. Please. For Wolfie. I love dear Wolfie.

And in honor of his genius, I present today’s post.

I should preface this by saying that Amadeus is number two in my top five favorite films (number one being Lord of the Rings, of course).

In fact, if you venture to my Letterboxd profile—where I’d love to share my film recommendations and reviews with you—you’ll find Amadeus in the second place of my favorite films slot.

It means a lot to me.

I should further preface this post by saying that the story depicted in Amadeus is rather divorced from the actual lives of both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his contemporary, Antonio Salieri.

Although, I will say that Hulce’s Mozart—with his toilet humor and tidbits of hanky panky shenanigans—is all too true to our historical perception of the great prodigy (he rather loved his scatological jokes, I’m afraid).

He also wrote a canon entitled “Leck mich im Arsch,” which I don’t think requires much of a translation…

So, I heartily approve of the film’s portrayal of Mozart as a prankster with bathroom humor.

But Amadeus, for all its other historical shortcomings, is a masterpiece of modern cinema. It depresses me how underrated it is. It should, in my humble opinion, be mingled with the likes of The Godfather and Citizen Kane and Casablanca and Jaws (dammit!) and other cinematic triumphs. Why isn’t it among the greats? WHY?

There are definitely reasons my mother playfully termed me a film snob the other day.

Anyway.

Allow me to offer a brief summary of the film spliced together from both Letterboxd and IMDb:

Amadeus is the incredible story of the life, success, and troubles of genius musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as told by Antonio Salieri, the contemporaneous composer who is insanely jealous of Mozart’s talent and claims to have murdered him—and who is now confined to an insane asylum.”

So I rewatched the director’s cut of Amadeus last month. I showed it to my little sister for the first time on her eighteenth birthday. As I’d hoped, she didn’t move an inch throughout the run time, and when the film ended, she only uttered a solemn “wow” whilst the credits rolled. I was reminded of how absolutely brilliant the film is and why it’s one of my favorites.

Let’s suppose Amadeus didn’t win eight academy awards for a moment. How would I go about convincing you of its genius?

Do I talk of the music? Of the performances? Of Tom Hulce’s joking, boyish Mozart? Or perhaps of F Murray Abraham’s delightfully brooding, envious Salieri? Should I mention the costumes? Maybe I ought to mention the film’s dark, wounded theodicy?

Perhaps more than anything, I can tell you that Amadeus is a film about artists. It asks questions that I adore: questions that toe the lines between art and theology. What does art mean for humanity? What does art mean to God? Does God bless the artist? Does God give creativity? Or worse: does He take it away?

Anyone can watch Amadeus. Indeed, it is a film for all people in all times. It is timeless.

But as an artist myself, Amadeus is one of those films that speaks so clearly to my artistic ambitions. Movies about writers—like Little Women, Dead Poets Society, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and even The Man Who Invented Christmas—make me feel all the delightful things about being a writer: the ability to create beauty, to share it with the world, and to be seen (and adored) for one’s labors of love.

And then there’s Amadeus, which showcases the haunting and daunting side of artistry. It reminds of the possibility that no one will ever see what you’ve done; that you’ll be eclipsed by another; that you’ll be forgotten and unloved by the populace; that your work will never be adored.

Such is the case for the film’s protagonist (and antagonist), Antonio Salieri.

Salieri makes a sort of “pact” with God to surrender to heaven his compositions, his chastity, and his entire life in exchange for fame, eternal glory, and recognition. More than anything, he wants to create beautiful things and to be loved for his creations. It’s an echo of that sacred impulse to create in every one of us.

Once he becomes the court composer for Emperor Joseph II, Salieri composes to his heart’s content, believing that God has rewarded him for his chastity and ascetic penitence. He essentially becomes the most famous musician in Vienna.

He believes himself to succeed, that is, until Mozart arrives in the Austrian capitol and seals Salieri’s fate as…a mediocrity.

Salieri becomes a second-rate composer in Mozart’s shadow. His pious religiosity hits a breaking point when he witnesses Mozart’s crass and juvenile humor. How can such a man produce prodigious, angelic music? Little Wolfie becomes the darling of Vienna, and Salieri is left to brood and grow bitter. What’s more, Salieri is ridiculously frustrated sexually and is deeply envious of Mozart’s virility.

I’ve heard it said that Salieri is—in many rather silly ways—the incel to Mozart’s chad.

Perhaps that’s a bit of a reduction.

Salieri then begins to plot Mozart’s demise out of jealousy and to spite God; resolving to make God his enemy and to destroy His creation (i.e., Mozart).

And it calls into question his motives for composing.

This is where I feel Amadeus speaks so firmly to artists. It calls into question one’s motives for creation. Not only Salieri’s, but our own. For what do we create?

That’s the point of Forman’s Salieri. That’s the genius of the film’s characterization of him: he represents all artists everywhere.

Me? I’m no Mozart.

Perhaps you are, but I most certainly am no recognized prodigy.

Salieri represents the normal ones: the artists who work hard and create beautiful things out of their hearts and never receive recognition but desperately desire it.

I’m reminded of Vincent Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, Galileo, Edgar Allan Poe, and even Johannes Vermeer. It wasn’t until they died that the world saw what they made.

Some artists we’ve never even heard of still.

Do we write and sing and perform for the sake of beauty? For the sake of Divinity? For what do we create? Do we only seek immortality and prestige and recognition through our work?

And when we are eclipsed, overlooked, forgotten…does it drive us mad?

As stewards of the beautiful, artists cannot produce and create merely for immortality and acclaim. Art is an act of creation. Art exists because it was birthed from a vision of beauty within a human heart. For most of us, we cannot help but tell stories and paint paintings and sing songs.

“All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing… and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn’t want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire—like a lust in my body!—and then deny me the talent?”

Salieri, from Amadeus

The artistic impulse to create consumed Salieri. The desire to nurture something beautiful; to compose angelic melodies; it was true, and it was God-given.

But Salieri was never mute, nor did he become mute. And he was never mediocre. He was merely overshadowed. His compositions were always heard by God, but they were not always heard by men.

And that burned him inside.

Salieri’s desires are misplaced: he claims his art is for God, but the true nature of his anger and envy and bitterness is the dismissal he receives from men.

And even in his mediocrity, he wishes to be seen before men as the greatest of all mediocrities.

I will speak for you, Father. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.

Salieri, from Amadeus

And it is truly the deepest, darkest lament of all artists everywhere: to be seen by no one is, thus, to be mediocre.

Except that it isn’t.

If it were so, then Vermeer and Van Gogh and Dickinson and Kafka and Galileo and even Salieri himself were lackluster, dull, mediocre artists. And they aren’t; and never were; and never shall be.

And the same is for us.

Perhaps we will never be lauded for our artistic triumphs, but we have them nonetheless. And it makes them no less triumphant. For no matter who sees our art, we will always have one Lover of our work.

His approbation is the greatest honor we could receive.

And that, my dears, is one of the reasons I’m currently revisiting Amadeus with a rather rabid obsession.

If you haven’t watched it yet, please do yourself a favor: stop whatever you’re doing and watch it right now. It is…miraculous.

If you don’t watch it for my pleading, then watch it for F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce’s gripping performances. And for the music. And the twisted story and the dark theodicy and Salieri’s hubris.

One of the best things about it, I think, is that while it’s a story about artists and their creations, it subsequently is art itself. In giving commentary on art, it becomes a work of art. A work of art that garnered a well-earned eight academy awards.

And, of course, I have Spotify playlists with actual compositions written by both men, which you should certainly listen to if you’re interested.

Now you can delight in the work of Der Wunderkind *and* everyone’s favorite patron saint of mediocrity.

I seem to be writing an awful lot about classical musicians lately, haven’t I?

Oh well.

I suppose I can only pray to be absolved by the beloved patron saint of mediocrity.

In all absolution:

Your Devoted Emily

P.S. I shall be back to gush about my time in Austria very, very soon.


A brief note to the younger/more sensitive readers of my blog: Amadeus has two versions. There’s the PG rated Theatrical Cut and the R rated Director’s Cut. Both versions have their fair share of scenes that could be deemed problematic, so please do not take my glowing review of the film(s) as an approval of their “family friendliness.” If you’d like a more detailed account of content/trigger warnings, feel free to leave a comment or send me a private email. I’d be more than happy to discuss one of my favorite films with you. 🙂

4 thoughts on “The Artist’s Lament: A Love Letter to Miloš Forman’s Amadeus (1984)

  1. Learned a new word today, “theodicy.” Very nice, very nice. 😉

    We did a group presentation in my German class about Mozart, and the other students in my group insisted on including clips from “Amadeus,” so… we did! I vividly remember the clip of Mozart’s burial scene (if you can call that a burial–poor guy!) It was Stirring, Jeeves, to say the least. I was Stirred. Like, I remember spontaneously making the sign of the cross when they tossed his body in the grave, because it felt like a real death, like somebody’s soul really had departed the earth, and not just in the make-believe fictional sense.

    1. Hehe I love me the word theodicyyy 😉

      And absolutely; the ending of Amadeus is incredibly stirring, as you put it. That ending practically compels one to make the sign of the cross. It feels so real, in the saddest, most morbid way possible. It’s so well done! Delighted you enjoyed the post! 🙂

  2. You have certainly piqued my interest! I’m wondering, have you read or watched The Agony and the Ecstasy? It is a biography of Michelangelo that also explores what it means to be an artist. I loved the movie. I started the book and also loved that, but I haven’t finished it (it is extremely long).

    1. Hello Alena!
      No, I have not seen that film, but it sounds wonderful. I’ve just added the film to my watchlist and the book to my to-read list! I love Michelangelo, and if I’d known he had a biopic, I’d have watched it sooner! Truly, he’s one of my favorite artists.
      Thank you so much for your delightful comment! I do hope you love Amadeus if you end up watching it! 😉
      Emily

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