Christian theologians teach that God speaks to us through special revelation and general revelation. Milos Forman advances the idea, in his film Amadeus, that God can also speak to us through the work of inspired artists as one form of general revelation.
Think whatever you want about how the most religious character in the film is portrayed, there’s really no other film where the idea that God personally speaks to us through art comes across more clearly. Can God use music, written by man, to show to us just a few glimpses of His truth and beauty?
According to Amadeus, the answer is a resounding yes.
A fictional take on the lives of classical composers Mozart and Salieri, Amadeus is narrated to a priest by what appears to be either a self-confessed murderer or a complete lunatic. F. Murray Abraham eats up the screen as Antonio Salieri, a cold, calculating, hungry, jealous fellow who seems obsessed with trying to write music for God.
But it’s only in Mozart (Tom Hulce) that he sees a man being used by God in order to speak to people through music, and he covets Mozart’s talent so badly that it begins to drive him mad. Also, Salieri does not just grow to hate Mozart because of his musical God-given gift; he also is repulsed by what he considers to be a childish, vulgar, and irreverent man "with an obscene giggle." Salieri demands to know why God would give this foolish little man genius, and the answer to his question rests at the heart of the film.
It’s true. The Mozart in this film is shameless, crude, and tells dirty jokes. Hulce gives him a childlike quality where he takes joy in the seemingly stupid and trivial. He is not a character one would expect God to use for much of anything. In fact, he is a character who would be found very offensive if he walked inside any modern day Christian church.
And yet, there is a joy about him. He and his wife, Stanzi (Elizabeth Berridge), obviously intensely love life and each other. While there is something dangerously happy-go-lucky and naive about them, they also understand a little about living lustily and taking delight in little pleasures—an understanding that none of the characters who Mozart offends are capable of sharing. It is this intense joy that you often hear coming across through Mozart’s music. So as the film continues, the viewer can’t help feeling there is method to the madness, and perhaps something in Mozart of a “holy fool.”
But Amadeus also gives us another picture. In this film we are shown allegorically the age-old story of the devil envying and therefore deciding to destroy God’s creation. Salieri recognizes the beauty and the divine in the music composed by Mozart. He regularly complains how it astounds and transfixes the listener. He believes that it is “of God” and then slowly decides that he wants to destroy it. This is an inherently Christian understanding of evil. Evil cannot create anything of its own, so it only seeks to wreck that what is good.
While it is not the most historically accurate film, the screenplay, written by Peter Schaffer, has a little genius of its own. It even offers a lonely and tortured Salieri an opportunity, at one moment, for genuine friendship and redemption when a surprisingly humble Mozart asks for his forgiveness. It’s subtle, but Forman uses his story to contrast Salieri’s view of a capricious and cruel god with another different God, one who is capable of speaking through the music written by Mozart.
This is essentially what makes Amadeus one of the most timeless films to come out of the 1980s. Listening to the soaring music composed by a man inspired, the viewer is left with the idea that there could be a God who speaks to us, and who uses the sometimes very unexpected, in order to reveal divine beauty to man.