Rightwing Film Geek

Blog Me Amadeus: The Homily on Salieri

“For by grace you are saved … not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God. Not by works, so that no man may glory. For we are His workmanship.”

— St. Paul, Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 2

When describing AMADEUS, Salieri is frequently described as an initially pious man who turns against God because He gave Salieri the gift of the love of music while giving the gift of music itself to Mozart, an impious clown. I myself used almost those exact words a couple of years ago when describing the effect seeing AMADEUS had on me in the late-80s. While it is obviously correct as a description of the general narrative trajectory, I used one word there that is significant. “Initially.” The central event is the tossing of a crucifix on the fire, and the whole back half of the film is about an explicitly-named plot against God.

Or so I thought.

When I looked at AMADEUS again a week ago for this blogathon, I had religious questions and issues in the front of my head because I had told Bilge in vague terms that I would write something about how the character of God is presented. This caused me to look more closely at the ways in which Salieri describes his piety, and to privilege mentions of religiously-fraught details. Viewed in that light, the film turned itself upside-down from how I had previously seen it. Never before had I seen how spiritually inevitable it was and how Salieri’s undoing was the result of his own vices, which he sees as virtues. AMADEUS is not the story of a pious man cruelly treated by a Tyrant-god given to cosmic jokes (though that IS how Salieri presents it). Rather, it is the story of an impiously proud man who tries to exercise Providence as if he himself were God.

While nobody can deny that, seen from a certain man-centered level, God “has a sense of humor” in the exercise of His Providence, it’d be profoundly blasphemous to say God merely tortures men and/or uses them as props in some cosmic joke. If Salieri were a genuine servant, the God portrayed in AMADEUS would be capricious and cruel. But I deny that the “if” clause genuinely is the case.

The entire film takes the form of a confession, Salieri’s to the crime of murdering Mozart, but Peter Shaffer changed one significant detail for the adaptation of his own play. In the play, Salieri is speaking to the audience in the theater. Shaffer’s directions near the start even specify that the house lights should go up, so as call forth and incarnate the audience members as the Posterity and History to which Salieri is appealing. Obviously, that device is technically impossible in a movie, and even “breaking the 4th wall” at all is seldom advisable. Instead, the “flashback device” is that Salieri narrates the story to a priest. But even though, speaking generally, his narration is in a confessional mode, it is not formally a Confession. When the priest asks “do you wish to confess your sins,” Salieri just looks at him with contempt, justifies himself and keeps narrating, never saying an Act of Contrition or anything equivalent. Meanwhile, the priest never puts on his stole, goes through any of the other obvious external customs, or says the words of Absolution.

But that’s at the end of the story events, by which point Salieri has patently turned against God. What struck me now, as never before, was that this attitude was always present in Salieri, even as a boy, and during the time when he paints himself as God’s faithful servant. Practically the first words out of Salieri’s mouth about his boyhood was to call Mozart, the boy prodigy, “my idol.” Obviously this term can be used somewhat loosely and thus in itself is fairly unremarkable. But Salieri describes a prayer that he said as a boy in church, and he does so in much greater detail and paints it as the result of much greater foresight. It is worth quoting in its entirety.

“I offered 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. Make me immortal. In return, I will give you my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility every hour of my life’.”

This prayer, to put it mildly, is soaked through with the sins of pride and presumption. Salieri even calls it with approval “the proudest prayer.” It is also a request for worldly goods — fame and fortune on the one hand, and (worst of all, given the theological nature of the word) immortality through these things on the other. It’s almost the inverse of Woody Allen saying he didn’t want to be immortal through his work, he wanted to be immortal by not dying (which at least frames the question of immortality properly). And then look at the last sentence, which is an effort to “strike a deal” with God, as if man could barter with God as he does with another man, his equal. Petitioning for worldly goods isn’t forbidden, of course, but here is what the Church says about it in the current Catechism:


2631 The first movement of the prayer of petition is asking forgiveness, like the tax collector in the parable: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” It is a prerequisite for righteous and pure prayer. A trusting humility brings us back into the light of communion between the Father and his Son Jesus Christ and with one another, so that “we receive from him whatever we ask.” Asking forgiveness is the prerequisite for both the Eucharistic liturgy and personal prayer.

2632 Christian petition is centered on the desire and search for the Kingdom to come, in keeping with the teaching of Christ. There is a hierarchy in these petitions: we pray first for the Kingdom, then for what is necessary to welcome it and cooperate with its coming. This collaboration with the mission of Christ and the Holy Spirit, which is now that of the Church, is the object of the prayer of the apostolic community. It is the prayer of Paul, the apostle par excellence, which reveals to us how the divine solicitude for all the churches ought to inspire Christian prayer. By prayer every baptized person works for the coming of the Kingdom.

What was absent from Salieri’s prayer? Several things, but most of all, trust in God’s Providence (“thy will be done,” as the Lord’s Prayer puts it), a quest for forgiveness, and the loving humility a Father is owed. The subject of humility does come up, though the way that Salieri fruitily lingers over the words “my deepest humility” smacks of what we now call “humblebrag” and makes the whole invocation come across as campy and/or blasphemous.

While the St. Paul quote I led with is specifically about the supernatural act of salvation, the Apostle’s point is also more broadly applicable, as a point about devotion and the possible pitfalls of success, that it can foster pride. When Tim Tebow thanks God for this or that achievement on the field [VJM the Steelers fan puts his teeth on edge], the point isn’t that God wants the Broncos to win, but to keep Tebow himself a humble man and work against the traps of his fame by stressing that the Glory of Tebow’s achievements belong to Him, not to him. Tebow himself is smart enough to get that distinction, even if some of his fans are not; he has never to my knowledge said “God wants the Broncos to win.” Salieri, on the other hand, tries to outthink God. At one later point, he narrates to the priest, something unfortunate happened and he asked himself at the time “was God testing me? Possible. But why him? Why choose Mozart to teach me lessons in humility?” To put it in the politest way possible, that not only manages to get the virtue of humility wrong, but replaces it with a form of one of the seven deadly sins and one Salieri has identified with all along — pride. After all, what could it mean for God (or gods or men, the point is generalizable) to test someone’s loyalty, but only by doing so in a manner or via the instruments preferred by the testee. Particularly when the test is of humility — “A quality by which a person considering his own defects has a humble opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake” — which is a form of submission.

Next consider the event that happens after the boyhood prayer, which Salieri calls a “miracle” and the answer to his supplication. His father suddenly died, and as a result the young boy could go off to study music. Really? That was his reaction to his father’s death? To absorb it as an opportunity and a gift from God? And not because his father was portrayed as bad in any way other than not cooperating with the young boy’s career ambition (i.e., not in a way even possibly arguably maybe worthy of wishing death or being grateful for it). Given the Bible and the Church’s frequent use of “Father” imagery to refer to God, is it really so surprising that Salieri would come to desire the death of the heavenly Father he has not seen as eagerly as he did the death of the worldly father he had?

If you follow God for the wrong reasons, as Salieri does, it poisons the soul and/or allows one to follow Satan in God’s guise. When Salieri is shown praying later, as an adult, it is entirely over his jealousy for Mozart. “Lord please send him away, back to Salzburg, for his sake as well as mine,” and when this doesn’t happen, Salieri interprets this, not as God’s Providence perhaps working itself out in ways I must discern (perhaps keeping Mozart around was for Salieri’s own good, as Salieri kinda sorta half-sees with respect to Mozart’s music), but as God playing around with me, cruelly messing with my head. Another prayer continues Salieri in bargaining mode and demanding worldly gifts as signs from God (when Zachary did this in the New Testament, he was struck dumb). Salieri says he “prayed as I’ve never prayed before,” but it was for “one piece [of music] with Your breath in it, so I know You love me. Show me a sign of Your favor and I will show Mozart mine,” indicating that the boyhood prayer wasn’t an aberration or a one-off, but the notion of God that Salieri carried with him continuously to the end.

When he declares war on God in the crucifix-burning scene, he says the causa belli is not only that he chose Mozart as his instrument, but because He “give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation.” Even beyond the blasphemy of the “bargaining mode” and seeking “reward,” Salieri specifically scorns the gift God does give him, the love of music, and does so using as theologically fraught a term as possible. Even in some later scenes, Salieri specifies that Mozart’s music speaks to him in Godly or Sacramental terms — the 4th act of “The Marriage of Figaro” was “the music of true forgiveness filling the theater, offering true absolution.” When Salieri says that “God was singing” and that “my defeat was becoming more bitter with each passing bar,” I was reminded again of one time, after doing something very terrible, I left Adoration in tears of hatred, swearing aloud I’d never go back. Another man in the chapel followed me outside and it was all I could bring myself to say, using the three least convincing words ever uttered in English, that “I am fine.” But he made me promise, via a nod, to come back the next day. I never saw him again. He doesn’t know my name, nor I his. Salieri wants more than to be God’s instrument. He wanted to be the incarnation itself, to offer absolution itself. Not to know and love the Incarnation or accept Absolution. This is the psychological form of what Joyce called the Satanic “non serviam” — better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. To be God Oneself.

Nor did the rest of Salieri’s boyhood prayer come off, even on its own corrupted terms. For one thing, his chastity offer gets quickly forgotten when the chance to humiliate Mozart comes along in the form of his wife going behind his back to plead with Salieri for a job at the court. The very moment he sees “absolute beauty” (i.e., one form of God) in the music sheets Constanza has brought along, that is when he demands she put out. It’s an acute moment about what it means to have come to hate God — any presence of His becomes intolerable and an excuse to lash out at Him. Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart is also specifically sexualized in the scenes of the actress who is Salieri’s pupil but who also starred in Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio.” To put it bluntly, merely not-putting one’s hands on a woman, a point of honor on which Salieri insists, is not chastity if one still “cannot bear the thought of anyone else else touching her.”

As for Salieri’s music, the way it’s portrayed in the film has little to do with “celebrating God’s glory,” as promised. It’s not even that his music isn’t “the voice of God,” as Mozart’s is, but that it isn’t even portrayed as a failed attempt. That is, we don’t see Salieri writing, say, a Mass, as Mozart does, even unto death in his case. Instead Salieri unwittingly describes his music career as attached to the praise of fools. He says of the Emperor of Austria, that “he had no ear at all. But what did it matter? He adored my music.” The issue of the awkwardness of becoming famous for works on God’s behalf (sorta like Tebow, but a much more serious and better example would be Mother Teresa) doesn’t even come up for Salieri because he chooses the praise of men even when he knows it’s worthless (“what did it matter?”).

All of which is why Mozart is so intolerable to Salieri. Besides his music being the voice of God, and his having the name “beloved of God,” Mozart is indifferent to those who praise Salieri and cannot bring himself to praise Salieri’s music. It’s the ultimate divine rebuke. Bad enough for Mozart to have a coin Salieri doesn’t have, but for him not to acknowledge the coin Salieri does… And when Salieri disgustedly snorts, “Why would God choose as his instrument such an obscene child?” he is simply taking to the bitter end the same presumption that was present in his boyhood prayer — to think he knows God so well that he can guide His Providence. That he can have expectations of God that are merely putting Him in a box of man’s own making. After all, when the God that Salieri is supposed to love actually took on human flesh, He did so as a poor peasant in some 10th-rate rural backwater (in another sort of man-made box), instead of as a king at the center of worldly power. And he ended up, to all appearances, as some crucified loser.

Salieri sees Mozart as God laughing at him, and is determined to have the last laugh. Which is conceptually incoherent of course. Even an atheist can realize that had his plan come off, he’d only have fooled men, not God. His theological error, intact from boyhood, comes in seeing men and fortuna as manifestations of God. And in the end, Salieri doesn’t even get that, as the Requiem Mass is locked away from him and Mozart’s body is dumped in a pauper’s grave. Even to the end, his claim to have murdered Mozart is an effort to impress men, to give himself the immortality that his music didn’t. And if he didn’t murder Mozart in the sense of stabbing or strangling him, well, that’s God’s fault too, he tells the priest, “destroying His own beloved rather than let a mediocrity share in the smallest part of His glory.”

At the end, and it’s clear that this narration has gone on all night, the priest is stunned silent and Salieri goes on to say he “will speak for you, Father” as speaks “for all the mediocrities of the world … for I am their champion, I am their patron saint.” Some have taken the priest’s silence as the film’s eff-you to God, Salieri finally striking the Church dumb (and by extension, God too). Setting aside that Salieri has pretty clearly gone nuts, Forman has the movie extend one more scene and it privileges the ultimate Providence by having the voice of God be the last sound we hear as Salieri is wheeled off. Further, I’d say the priest is more shell-shocked than refuted into submission. He’s just heard a Satanic tale of a man determined to damn himself, against which … no, there isn’t much he can do. God has not been mocked but a man has condemned himself in an unsuccessful bid to mock God. But as a 19th-century priest, he likely would have been familiar with St. Catherine of Siena, whose Treatise of Divine Providence had, in the voice of God, this to say about men who lack humility and are ungrateful:

No virtue, my daughter, can have life in itself except through charity, and humility, which is the foster-mother and nurse of charity. In self-knowledge, then, you will humble yourself, seeing that, in yourself, you do not even exist; for your very being, as you will learn, is derived from Me, since I have loved both you and others before you were in existence …
“These are they who are in a state of ordinary charity, wherefore, if they have trouble, they receive it in the guise of correction, and do not resist over much the clemency of the Holy Spirit, but, coming out of their sin, they receive the life of grace. But if, like fools, they are ungrateful, and ignore Me and the labors of My servants done for them, that which was given them, through mercy, turns to their own ruin and judgment, not through defect of mercy, nor through defect of him who implored the mercy for the ingrate, but solely through the man’s own wretchedness and hardness, with which, with the hands of his free will, he has covered his heart, as it were, with a diamond, which, if it be not broken by the Blood, can in no way be broken.”

Images of scowling Salieri, the burning crucifix and the sheet music are from blu-ray.com.

February 10, 2012 - Posted by | Blogathons, Milos Forman, Religion in movies


  1. […] Via Eve Tushnet, Rightwing Film Geek has a homily on Salieri. […]

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  2. […] Image Credit: vjmorton […]

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