This week in Hit Me with Your Best Shot: the sumptuous period piece Amadeus, quasi-biopic of 18th Century composers Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and one of cinema’s finest depictions of envy at its most toxic and self-destructive. It wasn’t so long ago that I said my piece on the movie as a whole, so I won’t bother with going through it all again, but it does the richly appointed costume drama thing as well as it has ever been done, never as mere eye candy, but in service to the characters and their lives. Which isn’t to say that it’s not also good eye candy: only that director Miloš Forman and cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček film Patrizia von Brandenstein’s production design and Theodor Pištěk’s costumes with an eye towards physically concrete realism, and not just “LOOK AT THE PRETTY”, like the vast majority of this film’s generic bedfellows.
All of which is to say that, naturally enough, my pick for this series is maybe the plainest, blandest shot in the movie. Let me explain really quickly before I share it: this comes right after the gorgeous scene in which Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) reads through Mozart’s (Tom Hulce) folder of work-in-progress, and experiences a moment of rhapsodic joy so intense that even as an old man decades later, he still drops into a trance from the memory of how perfect the art in front of him was. That was the scene I was going to snip a still from, until I let the movie roll forward to the next scene, in which we see the curdled reverse of this artistic transport: Salieri snatches his crucifix off the wall and pitches it into a fireplace, declaring war on the God who would bless a crude monkey like Mozart with skills that Salieri can only imagine possessing. In the process, we see this:
In a film about the life and texture and attitude of 18th Century Vienna, a nearly blank wall is a weird choice for an image that defines the whole. But thematically, I can’t think of a more blunt message statement. From the title down, the movie is secretly all about Salieri’s own crisis of religious, more than about music or professional rivalry; it is the story of a man who dedicated his life to God feeling that he got the worst of the bargain, and then spending the rest of his life trapped in a living Hell where he finds out how much worse “the worst” can go.
And so this image, which comes at the exact point that the movie and Salieri pivot. There has been no cut since we saw him rip down the crucifix, and Forman and his editors linger on the end of the shot for a few seconds, to let the clearly defined absence of that crucifix linger. It is not simply a blank wall, but a blank wall with the ghost of Salieri’s faith marked out in negative space. As visual metaphors go, that’s hardly the subtlest, but it’s immensely striking regardless – even more striking in the moment, since it quietly follows and precedes two violent, stabbing motions. And it is, to me, the perfect symbol for the movie as a whole: the tragedy of Salieri’s later life isn’t that he has lost faith, but that he remains a believer, who has willingly consigned himself to his own suffering solely as a “fuck you” to God. As he sinks into forgotten irrelevance, Salieri’s only option in life is to reflect on the shape of things he no longer has – talent, prestige, God – and to be conspicuously aware of the space they’ve left behind, to be filled in by nothing at all.