An Analysis – Amadeus

There is always a film that is the first love; it really gives us that sense that film is more than images on a screen, that there can be deeper meanings, and that has been, for ten years now, the same film for me: Milos Forman‘s Amadeus. While the film has an epic scope, with the large palaces, symphony houses, and waves of beautiful costumes, and a cast of thousands, it is, at its heart, a film about two characters:  Salieri, the court composer of Vienna, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) is an old man in his apartment screaming out that he killed Mozart. Inside, we see that Salieri cut his own throat. The image of the blood on his neck and the floor, the way his servants grab him, onto a cart in the street, is extremely visceral. Music is playing over all this from Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K 183, 1st movement; it serves as the perfect accompaniment piece, with imagery of the old city of Vienna, intercut with Salieri’s visions of the past court life. It gives us an immediate sense of the grandiose story in front of us. Also, the horror this old man has committed on himself gives us an immediate sense of the emotions at this film’s heart.

Salieri, now in a mental institution, talks with a priest and shares with him the story of his life. Salieri dreams of nothing more than making beautiful music for the world. To be, as he put it, touched by God. He has given to charities, forgone all vices (except his sweet tooth), and believes, for awhile, that his deal with God has been answered. Then he meets Mozart.

When Salieri sees Mozart (Tom Hulce) for the first time, he does not know who he is. He just sees a young man telling dirty jokes and wrestling on the floor with a young woman; then he hears this young man is the creator of beautiful music. This confounds Salieri. When Salieri looks at the original works Mozart has done, the music leaps off the pages at him; literally hearing the music, you see the look of anguish on Salieri’s face at the beauty he has beheld. Then Mozart’s wife calmly asks if it is any good. He looks at her as though she must be insane to even ask. The emotion on his face—his heart wrenching with inner struggles. Watching him become consumed with envy and at the same time marveling at the beauty in front of him is one of the most beautiful and insightful scenes into a person’s character I have ever seen, all communicated through his face and a few voice overs.

Salieri is then determined to bring Mozart down and find a way to make himself be as brilliant a composer. We see him at his manipulative best after this. He presents himself to others, always as this humble figure who is able to gain influence and friends among the court, and even with Mozart himself. Then we see his other face, the driven, bitter man who manipulates Mozart and others and uses his influence at court to keep Mozart down. However, being an honest narrator, he tells us everything so bluntly. This is what makes the story feel so real to me—the personal touches that are interspersed within this story of revenge, none more so than his sugar addiction, which is shown many times throughout. It is done with a light touch; he always offers guests some exotic piece of candy, and even as an old man the addiction has stayed with him, but this is no quirk—it shows that for one who forgoes all vices that there is still something a man desires, even a small thing like candy, and gives us a stronger feeling of his humanity, and one of the few things that gives him genuine joy.

So much of this film is helped by the continued atmosphere: the location shots, sets, and the costumes are beautiful, giving us a sense of the time and palace, never distracting and never going over the top. They are there to encapsulate not just the era, but also the situations of the characters. Salieri in the mental institution, drab and depressing, befitting the life he now leads, contrasts with the brightly lit court where he is the main show. This is especially true in seeing the operas put on by Mozart, showing him first on top of the world, with lavish sets and costumes (which are as beautiful a spectacle as almost to be a film within a film), seeing the creation of these operas and the beautiful music being performed. Then, as he begins to suffer, seeing his work on smaller stages; the costumes become a bit more drab but give the authentic touch of the time and to Mozart’s situation.

These contrasts in him parallel the decline of Mozart as a person. He starts with such promise in his career; he has been making music since he was an infant and has been driven by his father to be great. He values his father greatly but he is also a bawdy man, who drinks and parties and has a laugh that was quoted historically as “like metal scraping glass.” He loves his music and, like Salieri, truly believes in his own brilliance. He is so egotistical that he cannot stand that so many other people do not understand his work. The inner drive and self-destructive behavior are what make him a brilliant man, but also a weak man, and his need to party and drink become stronger when his control starts to weaken over his circumstances. His contrast is engaging, but on the opposite end of Salieri; the brilliance is there, but his personality is what hurts him. Mozart does not know how to succeed, like many brilliant people. He doesn’t know how to play the game to make it in the real world and that is what does him in.

It is when Mozart interacts with Salieri, however, that he actually becomes slightly better. While it is clear he does not think much of Salieri’s music, he does go to Salieri for advice. When asked straight out what Salieri thinks of his work, Salieri cannot lie and says that it is the most beautiful work he has ever heard. He also attends all of Mozart’s shows—his only peer to do so. Mozart is truly touched by this action, never aware of what Salieri has done to him.

Through all of this ,it becomes hard to label Salieri just the villain. He is a complex human being, and most surprisingly, we feel sorry for him. We are so involved in his story that we cannot help but empathize with him, even when he is at his darkest. Because we can see ourselves in him—the desire to be great, to leave an impact on the world, and, in finding Mozart’s music, finding that which he loves like no other—we can relate to him. We all look to find that thing in the world that gives us meaning. Here is a person who shows us ourselves.

The lives of these characters are fascinating, because they feel real. For all their flaws, they are never easy to define, and therein lies the beauty of this film. We see them, we accept them, and we mourn for them.


Benjamin is a film connoisseur and Oscar watcher who lives in Minneapolis and, when not reviewing movies, works at the Hennepin County Library.

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