by Michelle Said
“Nobody sees anybody truly, but all through the flaws of their own ego.”
When I was in middle school, I was more than a little morbid. I had been meditating on the meaning of life and death over the past few years of my life, and I was terrified of the inevitability of my own passing. I did not know how to get around it. I would die. Everybody I knew would die. Life seemed not only hopeless, but almost like a joke. What cruel creator would provide life, only to snatch it away?
I didn’t know what to do. I enjoyed living, despite my adolescent strife, and I didn’t want to give it up. One day, in the midst of a particularly hopeless existential session following history class, I came up with a game plan: I would cheat death. Not in any of the normal ways we think about cheating death – no potions, spells, or deals with the devil; I wasn’t crazy. Instead, I thought about those who had made their mark on our history textbooks – the founding fathers, the great authors, the scientists, the visionaries. We remember those legendary figures because they left a legacy.
So I, Michelle Said, age 12, would cheat death by emulating those greats. I wanted to do something, to create something, something that would keep me alive long after I had gone. Of course, this sentiment was entirely motivated by my own fearful ego. I wasn’t t so much afraid of death as I was afraid of not being remembered.1
Which brings me to the eternal struggle of Mozart and Salieri.
Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984) is based on Peter Shaffer’s Tony award-winning play. If those unfamiliar, it tells the tale of Antonio Salieri, the relatively forgotten (if successful in his time) composer, who, according to the play’s version of events, was so consumed with envy in seeing Mozart’s natural-born talent that it drove him to madness.
There is so much to unpack here, and so many layers, that I could probably write a dissertation on the topic. (Talk to me later about the film’s images of dualism, the costumes, and F. Murray Abraham’s performance. All of these aspects are worth discussing, but sadly can’t be contained in a single essay here without the risk of boring you, dear reader.)
I held off viewing Amadeus until I was in my twenties. I will admit: “1980s period drama about the Baroque era in Vienna, featuring classical music” didn’t exactly spark my interest. But then one day, sick in bed, I decided to stream it on my tiny laptop screen out of a felt sense of duty to film literacy. It was, after all, a Best Picture winner. People had told me it was great. I didn’t believe them.
What gave me most pause was recognizing a piece of myself in it—a piece I didn’t exactly like. Like any great piece of art, Amadeus makes us recognize and confront our own foibles and flaws.
I was completely astounded by the film. There were no stuffy British accents or any evidence of overly affected Acting with a capital A to be found. Instead, Amadeus utilizes genuine human emotions, drawing portraits of people who feel alive in a world as easily recognizable as our own, whose quirks recall real human relationships and embody universal themes. The film walks the line between drama and comedy so deftly that it’s borderline miraculous. Yet, what gave me most pause was recognizing a piece of myself in it—a piece that I didn’t exactly like. Like any great piece of art, Amadeus makes you recognize and confront your own foibles and flaws.
It’s easy to imagine a more conventional writer producing a standard biopic of Mozart: His childhood, the cultivation of his talent, his legendary career, and his premature death at 35. But Shaffer’s Amadeus works in an entirely different way, succeeding largely because of the decision to frame Mozart’s life from Salieri’s point of view. Salieri slips into our own darkest impulses, niggling at all those fears, desires, and jealousies we often hate and reject in ourselves. He comes to embody the inner monster, that fierce, fearful ego that gripped me during my teenage years.
Looking to achieve his own slice of heavenly, musical grace, Salieri has dedicated his soul to God in what he hopes will be a fair trade: “I would offer up secretly the proudest prayer a boy could think of: Lord, make me a great composer. 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. In return, I will give You my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life, Amen.”
Essentially, he wants exactly what Mozart has. He has worked almost his entire life to get to where he is when we first meet him: a composer for the Austrian king, with an esteemed level of authority within the court. But he’s not happy.
And he’s not happy because he knows, deep down, that he is not, and will never be, half as talented as Mozart, who possesses an effortless and God-given talent. That knowledge alone would be hard enough to bear, but meeting Mozart in person twists the knife into poor, mediocre Salieri.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, that pinnacle of pinnacles, a veritable musical genius, is merely an immature young man who wears funny pink wigs and revels lustfully in life, indulging heartily in sex, food, and libation. He is everything the buttoned-up, pious Salieri is not.
This duality is what still keeps Amadeus so deliciously modern and novel some thirty years after its release and 224 years after Mozart’s death. There is something refreshing about seeing the stuffy costumes and formal attire of 17th Century Vienna brought down to real, human behavior every single time Mozart opens his mouth and lets out one of his ridiculous, high-pitched giggles. It’s hard not to love Mozart with his wide-eyed boyishness and dirty jokes. He is so unashamed of his own ripe youth that we can’t help but love him for it.
We are shown a Mozart that parties until the wee hours and then works all day on his music. A Mozart who is somewhat arrogant; whose comments give Salieri pause, and make him question his own work. After all, Salieri admires Mozart. In a way, he loves Mozart, and is unable to ever give false praise against his rival’s work because he has too much respect for the actual music. In his heart, Salieri knows that Mozart’s work will live on past the both of them. Mozart will be guaranteed an eternal life.2
Amadeus tells us to not be ashamed of ourselves, to focus on the art, not the outcome. The Mozart of Amadeus knew he was ahead of his time, and he knew that his music was better than anything else out there, but he never concerned himself with the way his legacy would be perceived beyond his own lifetime. He focused on the work itself. Amadeus, in many ways, was a lesson for me, one that I wish I had known when I was so fearful of death and trying to create my own legacy as a kid: do the work, do it to the best of your ability, and don’t worry about the outcome. Art, after all, is mostly for ourselves.
It is a lesson that Salieri wishes he could take to heart. But he can’t. His fixation on the afterlife is too strong, almost as if he doesn’t trust God to bestow upon him the eternal reward he felt he was promised.
The crux of this appears in the very opening scenes of the film. Salieri, having recently attempted suicide, sits down with a priest in his room in a sanatorium. He is old now, weathered mercilessly through the years with stringy white hair and eyes that have turned into slashes. He tells the priest he was a composer and plays him two of his works. The priest recognizes neither. “Can you remember no melody of mine? I was the most famous composer in Europe. I wrote 40 operas alone.” The priest shakes his head. Salieri then plays a tune by Mozart. The priest perks up immediately and says that he recognizes it, of course! Salieri sighs. He knows in the end that he is not destined for immortality because of his work. He would only achieve it centuries later, when a playwright would take his reputation for being a merely mediocre composer, and turn it into a play. A play that, in one final, terrible twist, would bear the title of his foil, Amadeus.
1 Weirdly enough, this theme also pops up in the 2014 animated film The Book of Life, which explores the Mexican tradition of La Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), wherein all of the remembered souls live in a happy and colorful 24/7 party atmosphere, and all of the forgotten souls live in a dusty, gray world. Cute movie, if not a little guilt-inducing.
2 In a way, and hear me out, I felt like this movie recalled a typical romantic comedy, something like My Best Friend’s Wedding, where we have a love triangle between Mozart, Salieri, and God. Salieri’s actions are almost that of the jealous lover, who is livid that the object of his affection could possibly fall in love with someone else. In an earlier version of this piece, I had mapped out complete parallels with that Julia Roberts romantic comedy, wherein Salieri is the Julia Roberts character, Dermot Mulroney is God and Cameron Diaz is Mozart. The parallels are not ironclad, but I still think there’s a case to be made there.
Michelle Said was one of the original founding editors of Bright Wall/Dark Room, and later served as media director and podcast host. She currently freelances and works on her novel in New York.