Despite its Oscar haul—11 nominations and eight wins, including Best Picture—it’s clear from the very start that Amadeus is not your usual, stuffy, historical biopic. Two servants bearing desserts approach the door of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), court composer in 1770s Vienna, and pause before entering to help themselves to a taste, leaving dollops of whipped cream on their noses. What follows is as much reverential drama as messy farce.
It’s also an intense spiritual struggle. We first meet Salieri in old age, en route to a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt. There he tells a priest (Richard Frank) about the source of his despair: anger that God chose to give otherworldly musical talent not to himself, but to the impetuous, irresponsible, and irreverent Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce, giggling about in pink wigs, less courtly composer than New Wave punk—or Puck).
Hulce and Abraham make for a perfect yin and yang (both were nominated for Best Actor; Abraham won). As Salieri, Abraham orchestrates a series of pauses, snarls, and sighs—as if he were a conductor—offering a portrait of a man whose greatest curse is an ear that recognizes exactly how heavenly Mozart’s music is. Hulce gets to have the most fun, but also layers the laughs with a tender understanding that as frivolous as he may seem, Mozart loves music too. It all comes together in a cruel scene in which Mozart, on the spot, impulsively improves a piece of music Salieri has composed in his honor. He looks up at Salieri not with an expression of one upmanship, but pure joy, fully expecting Salieri to appreciate the new sound that has been created. Instead, he’s crushed the man’s soul.
Director Milos Forman, working from a Peter Shaffer script adapted from Shaffer’s own stage play, imbues Amadeus with deep, tony shadows and a candlelit glow. It’s a gorgeous production—soaked in the rich beauty of Mozart’s own music—and in that sense every inch the Oscar exemplar. Yet the movie is at its best when deflating such pretensions, of both the modern era and Salieri’s time. In claiming that—to use Salieri’s words—it is nothing less than the “voice of God” that can be heard in Mozart’s music, Amadeus stands as a case study for the theological notion of common grace: that all creatures, not just the ordained ones, are capable of truth and beauty. Sometimes God uses the silly to deliver the sublime.