The pity of it, my wife remarked during intermission at a showing last week of "Amadeus," is that for a generation this film will shape the public notion of Mozart's personality and character. She was right: The film is almost certain to have such an effect, because its popularity seems to be both wide and deep, and this is indeed a pity, for the Mozart it depicts bears only passing resemblance to the Mozart to be found in biographies, in histories and, above all, in his own music.
The prevailing judgment about "Amadeus," both the play and the movie, appears to be that the liberties taken with Mozart's life by its author, Peter Shaffer, are justified by the entertaining story he has constructed around the Mozart-Salieri rivalry and by the themes, such as they are, that he explores in that story. But the prevailing judgment is wrong. "Amadeus" is much more than an exercise in dramatic license; it is a wholesale distortion of Mozart the man, a distortion evidently aimed not at enriching our understanding of him but at suiting the convenience of the filmmakers.
Mozart lived two centuries ago and the record we now have of him is considerably less complete, alas, than the biographers of the year 2184 will have of Michael Jackson. The record does permit us to conclude with some confidence, though, that he was slight in stature, fond of billiards and salacious jokes, impatient with composers and musicians less talented than he, irresponsible with money, openhearted and affectionate, intensely uxorious, fun-loving and ebullient.
All of this "Amadeus" gives us, but it goes far beyond that. In order to accommodate one of its central themes -- that genius can come in odd and unlikely packages, and that fate, or God, is not necessarily fair in choosing whom to bestow it on -- "Amadeus" turns Mozart into a fool. As conceived by Shaffer, directed by Milos Forman and portrayed by Tom Hulce, Mozart is a brat, a jackass, an 18th-century Fonzie. He is also an alcoholic, a womanizer and a carouser. He isn't even a composer but a mere instrument through which God, apparently by whim, poured the most beautiful music the world has ever known.
To accept this portrait requires a suspension not merely of disbelief but of knowledge; one must be willing to say that history is wrong and "Amadeus" is right. This is true not merely of the film's portrait of Mozart, but of its rearrangement and/or misinterpretation of known fact. To be sure, the interests of dramatic order and economy permit alterations of a minor variety. "Amadeus" fails to tell us that Emperor Joseph II died more than a year before Mozart did, but this is hardly a crucial omission. Nor is it crucial that the movie gives Mozart and Constanze only one child when in fact they had six, four of whom died shortly after birth; the omission takes some clutter out of the story, though it also eliminates an aspect of Mozart's private life that would create intense sympathy for him in any audience.
But other changes, all of them essential to "Amadeus," beg a far greater degree of tolerance. The Requiem Mass was commissioned under oath of secrecy, but hardly by a masked Salieri at Mozart's door; as Stanley Sadie writes in "The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians," "This commission came from Count Walsegg-Stuppach, who wanted to pass off as his own composition a requiem for his wife." Salieri's presence at Mozart's bedside during the feverish composition of the mass is most charitably described as an invention, but Constanze's absence is an outright falsehood; throughout his confinement in the late autumn of 1791, Sadie writes, Mozart "was nursed by Constanze and her youngest sister, Sophie."
But the movie's most blatant distortion is also its subtlest. Its climactic scene, Mozart's funeral, takes place under gray skies and a heavy rain. The small funeral party accompanies the coffin only as far as the gates of Vienna; at the burial site, Mozart's bagged body is removed from the coffin and dumped, most unceremoniously, into a grave with many other bodies. We are left to two obvious conclusions: That for some reason -- the weather? callousness? indifference? -- Mozart was buried unattended, and that he went to a pauper's grave. But here is what "The New Grove," music's ultimate reference work, reports:
"He was quietly buried in a mass grave, in accordance with contemporary Viennese custom, at St. Marx churchyard outside the city . . . If, as later reports say, no mourners attended, that is consistent with Viennese burial customs at the time; but Jahn (1856) wrote that Salieri, Sussmayr, van Swieten and two other musicians were present. The tale of a storm and snow is false; the day was calm and mild."
Apart from the weather, then, the filmmakers have not distorted history; rather, they have left it to our modern sensibilities to do the distorting for them. They know that to the late-20th-century middle class an unattended funeral and a mass grave indicate a pauper's burial, and they do nothing to discourage that impression, even though it is inconsistent with what history tells us about 18th-century life; if anything they strive to abet it, especially in the rude manner by which Mozart's body is thrown to the ground and then, with the other bodies, left open to the cold (if fabricated) rain.
All of this suggests nothing so much as that "Amadeus" is a thoroughly cynical piece of work that seeks not to illuminate history but to misconstrue it for the purposes of melodrama. It is most instructively compared with two other films that attempt to portray known, if elusive, historical figures: David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" and Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi." These movies take their liberties, as any artistic rendition of the past cannot avoid doing, but it is always within the bounds of dramatic license; these liberties are designed to interpret and explain, in the hopes of reaching a deeper understanding of historical truth.
Such understanding is not what "Amadeus" is after, even though it trifles with large questions of genius and jealousy. It is a shallow movie, and more's the pity because it is such a beautiful one. From first scene to last it is a joy to watch; the acting, with the egregious exception of Hulce, is superb; the music is ethereal -- no one, Christopher Hogwood possibly excepted, conducts Mozart so brilliantly as Neville Marriner -- and the interplay of that music with the scenario is both sensitive and imaginative. But all of this beauty cannot disguise the fraudulence of "Amadeus"; it may be a triumph of sorts, but it is a hollow one.