The 1984 movie Amadeus is a great achievement in its genre because it actually puts the creative process of the genius of W.A. Mozart at the center. This is extremely rare. Most films about great creators dwell almost exclusively on the personal failings of great artistic minds (Ludwig van Beethoven, Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Freddie Mercury, Elton John, you name it) while neglecting their real magic: how exactly they managed to achieve such wonders.
This is why I don’t like watching most such films. They are too often subtle put-downs of greatness. Amadeus is an exception.
There is this scene in the last days of Mozart when rival composer Antonio Salieri is taking musical dictation from the great man on his deathbed. Mozart builds the harmonic and rhythmic structure of the “Dies Irae” of his Requiem Mass. Mozart asks about the meaning of “Confutatis maledictis” and proceeds to compose the sounds of death knells, suffering, and the fires of hell.
It is stunning, and realistic despite being entirely fictional. And it makes one fully appreciate who Mozart was and what he achieved.
So it is throughout the film. To be sure, in real life, Mozart composed thousands of works including symphonies, operas, concertos, masses, hymns, chamber works, sacred works, and so much else. He died at the age of 35, which is truly hard to believe. He does seem to have been born with the whole of music in his head and lived only to give it all to humanity.
No movie of two-plus hours could possibly capture this. And, yes, the movie exaggerates Mozart’s failings and underappreciates the talents of Salieri, who might not have been amazing at his craft but he was pretty darn good. Manufacturing such a huge chasm between the two made the movie more exciting overall.
More than that, however, the film highlights a point that confronts excellence in all its forms in all times and all places. Achievement always faces barriers born of jealousy and envy. Mediocre talents are rarely inspired to be around people who are better at the craft than they, as they should be. Instead, they conspire to block and destroy, deploying whatever means they have at their disposal to make it happen. This is because mediocre talents often feel themselves shown up and humiliated by people who possess greater skill, even when it is not intentional.
In the fictional account, this is what Salieri did to Mozart. He blocks him from getting students by putting out salacious rumors about him. He pays for a housemaid who is actually his spy to report back on what Mozart is working on. When Salieri discovers that he is using a libretto of a banned work of fiction, he rats out Mozart to the emperor through his fellow cronies. Later he does the same when Mozart makes dancing part of his opera and he is forced to take it out because it violates some silly edict.
The entire time, Salieri poses as Mozart’s friend and benefactor, as is often the case. Too many friends of great minds are surreptitious enemies. So when Salieri puts himself in a position to help write up the Requiem Mass, his real purpose was to steal the music and pretend to be the real composer while having it performed at Mozart’s funeral. Pretty darn perverse and deeply sinister!
While the story is fiction, the moral drama here is real and affects the whole of history. Every highly productive person – we don’t even have to speak of geniuses here – often ends up surrounded by resentful and mediocre people who have too much time on their hands. They use whatever limited talents they have to plot, confound, confuse, and ultimately wreck their betters. The demand to “comply” is always the watchword: it’s a tool of destruction.
Salieri does this by trying to trip up Mozart by reference to deep-state rules about which Mozart was unaware or otherwise never saw the need with which to comply. It’s not allowed to use The Marriage of Figaro as a libretto! No dancing allowed in opera! And so on. Meanwhile, Salieri is careful to cultivate good relationships with court bureaucrats with similar motivations: stay on good terms with the emperor, don’t rock the boat, keep the money flowing, and put down anyone who would achieve greatness.
In other words, Salieri took advantage of the Habsburg equivalent of the administrative state to crush a talent better than he. Back then, the administrative state was only in its infancy. In later centuries, democracy unleashed it. We are speaking of an immortal force populated by people who are protected in their jobs by virtue of their status and mediocrity. Their main goal is to comply and force compliance on others but there is another institutional drive: to punish those who break free of constraints to do something new.
In this way, not just art, not just enterprise, but civilization itself can be strangled by bureaucracy and its wicked ways. The US today is beset at all levels by just such a thing. Hardly does politics in America even recognize its existence, even though the federal deep state is three-million people strong and untouched by elections at any level. It makes and enforces law, and passionately resists any attempts to reveal its existence much less restrain it. Once you see it, you cannot unsee it.
Nothing could be more important to recapturing this as a land of opportunity than to dismantle this machinery. Getting from here to there will be a struggle. Trump attempted it with his Schedule F executive order but that was quickly reversed by Biden. Republicans should certainly pay attention to this strategy. If they revive it, they can expect terrible consequences for themselves even if the prospect of emancipation from this machinery would be wonderful for the country.
In that scene I describe above, Mozart was putting music to the following words from the famous Sequence of the Death Mass: “Confutatis maledictis, Flammis acribus addictis: Voca me cum benedictis.” A loose version of the message might be: In the afterlife, the wicked are doomed to eternal flames, while the good are surrounded by saints.
In the Middle Ages during which this verse was composed, this was the outlook on life itself. Later humanity came to imagine that justice for the evil and good could be obtained not just in the afterlife but in this one too. We were not fated to live in a world in which evil triumphs and good is punished. The solution – the method of realizing this new world of justice – was the idea of freedom itself, which is always what unleashes genius, beauty, and progress in the world, in Mozart’s time and ours.