What it is is a cautionary tale about the destructive power of envy and how that twisted emotional state skews a persons perceptions of both the envied and, just as importantly, the envious; here depicted by a highly fictionalized, aging, bitter, cynical self-loathing Antonio Salieri (played by F. Murray Abraham in his Oscar winning performance).
Certainly some aspects of Mozart's actual character make it into this film: his fondness for scatological humor, his irreverence, his self confidence. But other equally important biographical details are left out because they don't serve the story that it being told here. For instance, Mozart was deeply devoted to his mother and his sister Nannerl who are never mentioned in the film. In fact he was with his mother on an extended stay in Paris when she died, leaving him emotionally crushed. He also traveled widely (for his day). He spent a great portion of his life in transit between the capitals of Europe (long, incredibly difficult journeys over roads that were barely more than root-filled quagmires) seeking commissions, playing for royalty, "getting the word out" in modern parlance. In the film you'd think he was a Vienna homeboy who never ventured beyond the tavern. He was the father of six children, four of whom died young but two of which survived into the mid-19th century. He was also, by most accounts, on the mend during the final year of his life. His income was up, he stopped accruing debts and even began paying down some of his previous loans and had a major success with The Magic Flute. The skewed time line in the movie makes it seem like his father died and a few months later he went into a permanent death spiral. (His father actually died four years before he did.)
But as I said few of the actual details of his life are important to the tale on view here because this is not a biopic. The real subject of the film is the Salieri character and his rabid embrace of one of the seven deadly sins (envy). Everything about the film's namesake is presented through the warped lens of his jealous delusions.
With all that said the story opens with an aging Salieri having just attempted suicide. He's confined to an insane asylum for his action and there is visited by a local priest who attempts to get him to confess his sins. The young lad doesn't know what he's in for as the brittle old coot unloads upon him his version of the Mozart story, the one he's always desperately wanted to believe himself. The one where he was a rival of Mozart and Mozart was little short of the devil incarnate. Fact is there was no rivalry, only in Salieri's head was he important enough to be considered a rival of Mozart.
But the aging prune has a captive audience and takes full advantage of it spinning a yarn for the ages. According to Salieri, Mozart was little more than a ungrateful pervert, molesting pretty young society things under tables during banquets. He was insultingly boastful and contemptuous, constantly drunk and possessed a demonic laugh that was one part hyena one part drunken trollop with touches of mocking insincerity thrown in for good measure. (It's crucial to note that when Mozart laughs what Salieri hears is god mocking him for his mediocrity).
The Salieri here is unrelenting in his final attempt to skew the Mozart narrative away from adoration to one of loathing. If he had lived in the 21st century he'd have been feeding these 'stories' to the Enquirer or News of the World, sitting back and reveling in the anti-Mozart backlash. But he lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries so his attempts to undo Mozart's reputation posthumously fell only on the overwhelmed ears of a parish priest.
He hints that he was responsible for Mozart's death but never says exactly how. He also suggests that he secretly commissioned the Requium Mozart was working on at the time of his death and spent the last night of Mozart's life in his bedroom with him acting as a kind of co-composer. (According to contemporary accounts Mozart died in the company of his wife and her sister. Salieri was no where near his deathbed.) About the only person in Mozart's life who gets anything like a sympathetic reading from Salieri is Mozart's father, Leopold. A stern disciplinarian and mediocre talent himself whose wishes Mozart often rebelled against, Salieri sees in him a kindred spirit and plays up to the listening priest the idea that Mozart was also a bad son.
Filmed in Foreman's native Prague Amadeus has an air of authenticity about it that is captivating in its own right. The cinematography by Miroslav Ondricek creates layers of texture that allow the viewer to sink into the world of 18th century middle Europe while the music is complementary and informative without becoming the picture; which was surely a danger given the quantity and quality of the material the film makers had to draw from.
Tom Hulce, cast as Salieri's version of Mozart, does a great job in a difficult role. The temptation had to be to play the character straight up, but that would have undercut the story. Instead he has to straddle realities and comes away with an admirable performance where the core of the character somehow manages to shine through the layers of contemptible and libelous attributions his narrator has slathered upon him.
F. Murray Abraham's Salieri is more pathetic than sympathetic. Sure it's tough to come face to face with someone in your chosen line of work who makes you look like a rube, but the level to which he's allowed himself to be consumed by his envy and the tireless lengths he's gone to (and indeed continues to go to even decades after Mozart's death) to snuff out the reputation of the master sets him beyond the border of understandable into the netherworld of despicable. By the end he's lost track not only of the facts surrounding the focus of his envy but of the facts surrounding himself and therein lies the real tragedy.
It might seem that the film makers were a bit hard on ol' Antonio, and truth be told they probably were, but again this is not a biopic, it is a cautionary tale and if the film makers had made Salieri have some change of heart in old age the story would have fallen apart.
So enjoy Amadeus for what it is; which is remarkable, resonant, beautifully crafted and deeply moving in parts. But please don't mistake it for history or biography.