Friday, March 11, 2022

Oscar Month: Best Picture Winner - Amadeus


Separating the art from the artist is an age-old problem.

It’s easier when the message of a work of art is as problematic as the person. When streaming Triumph of the Will or Olympia, you probably aren’t trying to figure out whether filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was a good person or not, since the glorification of Adolf Hitler sort of speaks for itself. While viewing The Birth of a Nation, you probably aren’t perplexed about whether writer/director D. W. Griffith had racist tendencies when you see African Americans depicted as savage, unthinking animals. But knowing this about Griffith, do you want to watch his other work? Intolerance or Way Down East or Orphans of the Storm, all of which received a great deal of critical acclaim through the last century?

There are those who won’t watch the work of Roman Polanski (Chinatown, The Pianist) because of his conviction on the charge of sex with a minor. And others who won’t watch the work of Woody Allen because of accusations on the same charge.

Some will no longer watch an actor or actress because of the political stands they’ve taken. Because someone supported or attacked Donald Trump or Joe Biden, cancelation of that person’s career is the only viable option.

As I said, this is not a new problem.

The 1984 film Milos Forman's Amadeus (and the 1979 Peter Shaffer play it is based upon) puzzles about how to look at excellent, in fact, divine, music when it is the creation of a truly flawed man. The play and the film greatly fictionalize the life of Wolfgang “Wolfie” Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) in order to pursue this perplexing philosophical question.

The story is told from the perspective of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), an actual composer of Mozart’s day, and the anti-hero of the piece.

Fortunately for this blog, examining churches and clergy, the film opens with a priest coming to visit Salieri, a resident in a madhouse. The priest tells Salieri, “I can’t leave alone a soul in pain,” and tries to assure him by saying, ‘“All men are equal in God’s eyes, I can offer God’s forgiveness.”

Salieri asks the priest what he knows about music. The priest says he studied music as a child and urges Salieri, “My son, if you have something to confess, do it now.” Salieri agrees to tell his story -- but to tell his story, he must tell Mozart’s story.

While Salieri sang in church as a boy, Mozart, as a child, was playing before the Pope. 

Salieri’s father prayed his son would be a man of commerce. Salieri prayed for God to make him a great composer. He promised in return to live a life of chastity, industry, and humility. Salieri considered his father’s death a gift of God. Before a crucifix, Salieri prays his thanks.

Salieri does experience great success as a composer. His works are played in the Hapsburg Court and his operas are quite popular. But then he encounters Mozart.

In Salieri's opinion, Mozart is a young, uncouth slob -- but Salieri hears Mozart’s music and realizes it far surpasses his own. He is filled with jealousy for the talent of Mozart, which he considers to be clearly divinely given. Salieri says, “If God did not want me to praise him with music, why did he give me the desire but not the talent?”

Salieri feels God has cheated him because the gift of musical genius was given to Mozart rather than himself. He burns a crucifix. He decides to war against God by secretly warring against Mozart. He sabotages the young composer's career and life. “I finally saw a way I could triumph over God,” he tells the priest. That secret war comprises most of the film, culminating in Mozart’s death.

Salieri believes that he killed Mozart, and that's what he tells the priest.

The priest is befuddled and has nothing to say at the conclusion of the confession. Salieri seems bemused by the priest’s sense of inadequacy. He sees a bit of himself in the priest, and says, “I will speak for you, Father, I speak for all the mediocrities of the world. Mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you.”

So does a composer's character matter? Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy" from his 9th Symphony is sung by churches around the world as “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” but that composer was a rather bitter man who argued with others throughout his life. Does that matter?

James 1: 17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” It is too bad Salieri didn’t take this Bible verse to heart and appreciate the music of Mozart as a gift of God. And we, perhaps, should do the same.

As for the Movie Churches rating for that little priest who came for Salieri’s confession? He did his best and for that, we’ll give him Three Steeples.

1 comment:

  1. dbroussa
    Good questions, but as far as judgment, our approach to a piece of art is different from our approach to a person.
    There is a wonderful episode of the TV show Justified about a man who made a life goal of finding the art work of Adolf Hitler - so he could burn it.