[Last weekend, while en route to Abu Dhabi, my good friend Jeremy swung by my cold-water Chicago flat. After a lengthy Indian-wrestling match, we headed downtown to the AMC River East 21, where we caught a screening of Duncan Jones’s latest film, Source Code. Two hours later, expelled into the brisk April evening, we hunkered down at the nearest Applebee’s and, after ordering multiple appetizers and pitchers of Stella Artois, recorded the following conversation.]
A D: Jeremy, did you like Source Code?
Jeremy: It didn’t offend me.
That’s high praise. I can envision it emblazoned across the film’s poster (which is hideous and which did offend me).
I’ve been watching the movie Amadeus (1984, directed by Milos Forman), in which the life of Mozart is told in a series of flashbacks by Antonio Salieri, a contemporary of Mozart who the movie depicts as a good man destroyed by envy. As the movie opens, Salieri, now an old man confined to an insane asylum, is approached by a young priest who has heard that Salieri blames himself for Mozart’s death. When the priest attempts to elicit a confession from him, Salieri obliges, but not without first giving a history of his relationship to Mozart. For even though, in the movie, Salieri did not kill Mozart, he planned to; and it is only by revealing the complexity of his feelings toward Mozart – how he loved the man’s music while he hated the man – that the aging Salieri can explain why he feels guilty.
F. Murray Abraham as the young Salieri. Abraham won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance.
The movie is compelling for a number of reasons, not least of all for its interpretation of history. For while there is some actual evidence that Mozart and Salieri had a contentious relationship, there is also some evidence that they respected each other. It is known that Salieri, for instance, used his influence to revive The Marriage of Figaro, and it is said that the two even composed a cantata together. Further, Salieri spent most of his career as a court composer, teaching pupils like Beethoven and Schubert, developing the form of the 18th century opera, and seeing his own works performed. And while there is some mystery surrounding the circumstances of Mozart’s death (he died of an unspecified illness at the age of 35), there is nothing to indicate that Salieri plotted to kill him. In other words, that Salieri’s historical identity may have been eclipsed by his fictionalized identity is worth acknowledging.
But I want to discuss for a moment the value that might be found in what tradition has made of him; specifically, in what his fictionalized identity – as a failed and envious artist – suggests about art as a vocation. Because even though, in the movie, Mozart is the object of Salieri’s envy, the cause of this envy, as Salieri understands it, is God.