Archivists have finally located a long-lost co-production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, a find that ought to lay centuries-long speculation about their possible rivalry to rest. In the 20th century, that speculation was kept alive by Peter Schaffer’s Tony-winning play Amadeus, which was turned into a hugely popular Miloš Forman-directed “biopic” that swept the Academy Awards in 1985. The film gained almost instant classic status for its portrayal of a puerile genius and his jealous, older rival. But how well has it withstood the test of time? Simon P. Keefe still finds plenty worth watching.
Keefe calls the movie “ultimately the best-known film about a classical composer,” a fact that drives scholars who despair over its factual inaccuracies insane. Though it portrays Salieri as Mozart’s murderous, wildly jealous opponent, Keefe writes that “its impact is wearily acknowledged by some scholars.”
So it should be time to give the film another look, argues Keefe. Since the film came out, scholarly awareness of popular films and scholarly tolerance of films that knock down the reputations of formerly glorified geniuses like Mozart have grown. In light of those changes and a more modern set of values, Keefe finds the film’s deft interweaving of fact and fiction quite contemporary indeed.
By painting a troubled picture of Mozart’s relationship with his father, who loomed large in his son’s life after years of exploitation and discipline, the movie encourages viewers to look at the composer not just through the lens of respect and celebration, but through the eyes of others who may have seen him as bratty or even pitiful. Keefe also sees an apt portrayal of the cross-pollination of 18th-century court music in the film, which famously shows Mozart riffing off of a tepid Salieri piece and humiliating the older composer.
Despite its obvious historical flaws, writes Keefe, the movie’s portrayal of Mozart’s composition of his Requiem alerts audiences to how hastily it was composed and how he approached its complex structures as a composer. But perhaps its greatest accomplishment, Keefe says, is the way in which it:
encourages us to reflect on the biographical enterprise relating to Mozart, on its reliability and unreliability, its virtues and flaws, and on the blurred line between fact and fiction, and between scholarly and popular perceptions of the man and his music.
Perhaps this “new” Mozart-Salieri composition is a good excuse to fire up the DVD player or streaming service and make it a Mozart movie night again.