The LA Review of Books published an article May 14th called Envy, or, The Last Infirmity. It is by (a) Sven Birkerts and is a review/analysis/interpretation of the film Amadeus. The article is not bad. It’s a bit long, and essentially claims that the film is not so much a biopic of Mozart, as much as it is a study of envy. Says Birkerts: Who knew that envy had so many expressions, that it was such a great subject? And he goes on to make a good case for his viewing/reading of the film.
Now, I think that this is a decent reading of the film, and if that is how Birkerts sees the film, that’s his experience, and who am I to argue. Except that I have seen that film at least a dozen times and feel slightly protective of it. So I dare say, the film is not about envy. That is, there is no doubt that F. Murray Abraham’s character of Antonio Salieri is envious of the young Mozart, but this is not the central theme of the film.
[I have wanted to write about this film for so long, so if the tone strikes you as overly self-indulgent, it is because Birkerts' article only provided the impetus for me to tell you what I think.]
The central theme of the film, as indicated by the title, Amadeus, is God’s love, or rather, its distribution. How and why does God love some of his human creations a little more than others? Remember, the whole film, the story of the film, the story Salieri tells, is told as a confession. (Or rather, as an anti-confession, but I’ll get to that.) The young priest comes to see him, and asks Salieri to offer him his confession. When Salieri refuses, the priest insists. Insulted at having to deal with a nobody, Salieri vainly asks, Do you know who I am? To which the priest gives the most diplomatic of answers All men are equal in God’s eyes. Oh, are they?! answers Salieri, at which point he turns his chair and decides to actually speak to the young priest. The confession begins.
The rest of the movie is dedicated to Salieri proving to the young priest (and the audience, for we are in the position of the priest not only because we are listening, but because Salieri’s tale will go from being the priest’s problem to being our problem) that something is not right with the view of a just God.
Why would God, asks Salieri, choose that dirty-minded little creature (as Salieri calls him), a silly little grasshopper, a buffoon (as Birkerts calls him) for his instrument, and not the illustrious Antonio Salieri? Make no mistake, it is God who places each of them in their roles. Mozart is almost explicitly talked about as God’s hand, simply writing down divine music. That scene when Constance comes to visit Salieri and shows him the originals of Mozart’s work is instructive. Salieri tells the priest (and us): I was staring through a cage of meticulous strokes at an absolute beauty. Absolute beauty? No prizes for guessing what theological concept this refers to.
Salieri’s life too, is (ehem, sorry) conducted by God. He tells us that as a young boy all he wanted was to create music. It is his merchant father who would have none of it. So Salieri prays to God. God obliges, Salieri tells us by producing a miracle, his father’s death, and removal of the main obstacle in young Antonio’s path. (The word miracle there is also a flag. The event is not called a coincidence, not a tragedy, but a miracle. An indication that Salieri’s offer to God has been accepted, and a covenant made.) And then from a mere nobody, Salieri rises to the highest position a musician can have in the known world, which is court composer to King Leopold, at his court in Vienna, the capital of music. Deal made, and from Salieri’s side, goods delivered.
Aye, but there’s the rub. Here, God reneges. Enter Mozart. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. That it is this shrill, annoying, vulgar little brat that God chooses for his instrument, is, in Salieri’s words, not to be believed.
I again refer you to the fact that we, the audience are in the position of the (anti-)confessing priest. The reason the film is not about envy, is not that Salieri’s is not envious, but that his problem, the problem of why God would choose Wolfgang and not Antonio, is only Salieri’s problem. It is ours. I am not, we are not envious of Mozart. We couldn’t even begin to approach Mozart’s talent, there is nothing to be envious of on our part. And yet, the injustice (Salieri calls God unfair and unkind) is obvious. How cruel, how egotistical, of God to have created Salieri only to have someone who could properly admire his creation. What kind of God could do this, could be this way?
This is why at the end, before Salieri’s is taken through the hallways to bless mediocrities, we catch a glimpse of the priest, head in hands, crushed by Salieri’s story. The priest understood what Birkerts does not: the problem is not one of envy.
Envy, one of the seven deadly sins, is something that can be confessed to, and something that can be confessed. ‘Confessed to’ meaning to admit being envious. But to ‘confess’ envy is to ask of God to be forgiven for committing the sin. Salieri confesses to killing Mozart, in the sense that he acknowledges having done it. But he is not confessing the murder, in the sense that he wants absolution for it. In that sense Salieri’s confession is an accusal, an anti-confession.
PS I, on the other hand, am envious that Sven Birkerts got to publish his reading of the film in the LA Review of Books, while I am left by fate to peddle my own opinions on this silly blog.