Tuesday, October 06, 2009
AMADEUS (1984, USA, Milos Forman, Peter Shaffer play and screenplay)
Whilst my father prayed earnestly to God to protect commerce, 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 vow I will give you my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility every hour of my life. And I will help my fellow man all I can. Amen and amen!”
What extraordinary writing! Economy, irony, implication – volumes are spoken in this one brief speech, themes sounded that will be repeated and inverted in subtle variations throughout the film. Salieri, speaking at the end of his life, recounts the childhood prayer that set the course of his life. He critiques the self-serving prayers of his father, a merchant, yet his own prayer is every bit as mercenary: he isn’t confiding in a loving Father, he’s unilaterally setting the terms of a quid pro quo contract, and presuming that makes it binding on both parties. When he calls the prayer “proud” he means it was noble, but we hear the irony as he names the cardinal sin that will come to define him. He pledges a chastity he will readily cast aside when he decides God isn’t keeping His end of the bargain, he promises a humility that will only ever be evident in recognizing – and coveting, and seeking to destroy – another man’s greater gift. The musical gift of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
These vows amuse us at the same time as they trouble us. They are childish, speaking a conventional piety as naïve as a Boy Scout promise – “and do a good turn to somebody every day.” But the fact the man who recounts them has never outgrown them, that he repeats them without recognizing their vanity, is chilling. What we smile at in the child, we recoil from in the man. By the time Salieri whines “all I ever wanted was to sing to God,” we know better.
Salieri believes he yearns only for eternity: we recognize a thoroughly earthly-minded man lusting for a merely earthbound immortality. Cruel justice lies in the fact that his prayer will in fact be answered. The now-aged man’s final speech picks up this opening theme and plays it back in an ironic inversion, and we realize that he is in fact remembered centuries after his death. People are writing plays and making movies about him. How pathetic.
When the young Salieri’s father chokes to death on a piece of fish and the self-consumed lad is sent away to study music, he takes it as a miracle – “I knew God had arranged it all; that was obvious” – and it is all clear: this God will do Salieri’s bidding, and even murder is an acceptable means to that end. How tragic.
Indeed, for all its energy and brilliantly entertaining wit, this film is a classic tragedy: not the story of Mozart at all, except indirectly, but the story of a man who could have been noble, or at least godly, but whose tragic flaw brings not only his own ruin, but the ruin of those around him. And this is a singularly theological tragedy: Salieri's tragic flaw is "the eldest sin of all, that struck down the morning star from heaven." The deadliest of the deadly sins.
“Amadeus” means “beloved of God.” Celebrated playwright Anthony Shaffer – preoccupied (like his playwriting twin brother, Peter) with twinning, and with the clash between conventional religiosity and a wilder, more dangerous communion with the divine – imagines in this not-quite-historical story something of a Cain and Abel tale, a Jacob and Esau rivalry. He considers what it may have been like to labour as a moderately skilled composer in the shadow of one of the sublime musical geniuses of all time. To believe oneself cursed because of another’s greater measure of blessing.
One smart friend is convinced the film is anti-religious, and certainly the image of God the film conveys is thoroughly unappealing. But perhaps the film is not so much anti-religious as it is the study of an anti-religious man. Bear in mind that this is Salieri's story, his version of event. We see everything through his jaundiced eye – including God. If his deity seems cruel, withholding, manipulative, capricious, punishing, are we seeing a true image of the Father, or only one that Salieri makes in his own image (or that of his own father?).
Or perhaps it is even closer to the truth to say that the film is not anti-religious, but rather anti-religion - if by religion we mean the things we do to please God. Biblical scholar Robert Jewett reads immense theological insight in the film, arguing that it conveys “a distinctive and little-understood aspect of the theology of Romans”: that sin, properly understood, has little to do with the conventional sense of sin as indecency – Mozart’s arrogance and crudity, his irresponsibility and unwillingness to conform to social niceties – and everything to do with the self-deception of the self-righteous man who would set himself against God. Who would set himself up as God.
The film doesn’t gloss over the sins of Amadeus – as winsome as he can be, he also acts out his own high-flying arrogance, lives in deadly thrall to his own vices. “There is none righteous, not one.” But he possesses a humanity, ultimately a vulnerability, that leaves room for the glories of grace Salieri can hear in “The Marriage Of Figaro” but not live. That can find the humility to ask forgiveness from one who is all the more in need of it.
EQUUS, WICKER MAN, COPYING BEETHOVEN
Available at Videomatica