Let's get this much out of the way first: you'd be hard-pressed to convince any studio today that the world needs a three-hour biopic about a classical composer, even one as universally famous as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Even in the 1980s, it probably wouldn't have happened if Peter Shaffer's play (he also wrote the screenplay for the film) hadn't been a Broadway sensation in 1981, winning the Tony Award for Best Play and enjoying a healthy three-year residence at the Broadhurst Theater. Director Milos Forman was coming off the Oscar-winning success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and a pair of Broadway-musical adaptations, Hair (1979) and Ragtime (1981), which put him in a position to craft such a large film. It's a good thing, too, because Amadeus stands as one of the biopic genre's best entries, even if it doesn't strictly stick to true events.
The relationship between the two men is the film's driving force: despite the name in the title, this story belongs to Salieri just as much as it does Mozart. And their tumultuous rivalry is fraught with Salieri's feelings of mediocrity, Mozart's high-pitched giggle, and, yes, plenty of coded homosexuality.
More after the jump.
Compare those, then, to the speech of Salieri and the other members of the "upper class." Their speech, though not necessarily "accented," is certainly more clipped and measured. Salieri speaks in a lofty tone, an affectation that speaks to his high position as the emperor's court composer. It also speaks to his belief that God had chosen him to create beautiful music, and that he was fated to be hailed as one of the greats. That he continues to use this tone in his rantings against God and self-loathing is indicative that, deep down, he still believes that Mozart's reputation should have been his.
That Salieri is putting on this accent, too, demonstrates how much of his life is ultimately a performance. Though neither Salieri nor Mozart came from impoverished backgrounds, neither of them were guaranteed a place in Viennese high society. But where Salieri worked hard to get to his position, leaving his past behind him, Mozart was born with an innate talent that gave him a free pass to the top without the same level of sacrifice.
His background, however, may not be the only thing that Salieri is repressing. It is no coincidence that the film shares many parallels with Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd, Sailor, an allegory for sexual repression gone horribly awry. In Melville's story, a ship's master-at-arms named Claggart becomes obsessed with new sailor Billy Budd, to the point of accusing him of conspiring a mutiny. Billy has become one of Captain Vere's favorites, which angers Claggart, and the ensuing trial ends in death. Many critics have read Melville's story as being about homosexual repression, with Claggart unable to control his attraction toward Billy and jealous of his revered status in Vere's eyes.
Which makes my choice for "best shot" all the more fascinating. Late in the film, Salieri visits Mozart disguised in a black mask that has two faces: one the Greek tragedy, the other the Greek comedy. It is the same mask worn by Mozart's recently-deceased father (the only person "Wolfi" could never impress) at a party that Mozart had taken him and Constanze to earlier in the film. Salieri's hope is to use Mozart's complicated relationship with his father to have him compose a requiem, one which Salieri will claim credit for once he finds a way to kill Mozart.
Forman wisely draws a visual (and comedic) parallel between the two appearances of the mask. At the party, the game the attendants are playing is musical chairs with ribald consequences for losing. Constanze loses a round, as thus must show her legs to the crowd. Mozart looks to his father to see the mask frowning back at him:
And for a nice comic beat, when he turns to leave there's the smiling face beaming back at the camera (and Mozart).