Salieri the villain

“I will speak for you, Father. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.”

If I had to choose a favourite film, it would be Amadeus, almost solely because of my appreciation for Salieri. It is Salieri who carries the story, Salieri who narrates, Salieri with whom we identify. Salieri is the protagonist, and Salieri is the villain.

I have pondered this film often enough to figure out why I love Salieri’s brand of villainy so much, and have narrowed it down to four reasons.

First, Salieri and Mozart are similar. They share their love for music and their ambition to compose and be applauded. They occupy the same niche, even as Mozart is vastly more talented than Salieri. A relationship, even an antagonistic one, is built upon similarities as well as differences. The shared traits are amplifiers of the conflict. Without such parallels, the hero-villain dynamic becomes a simple black and white affair, but with them, we get nuances of grey. It is in these patches of overlap that relationships become interesting, but to achieve that, there needs to be common ground. Salieri is hopelessly fascinated with Mozart’s music, adores it like no other in the film. He is touched to the core by reading the sheet music for Serenade for Winds, and while he engineers the failure of The Marriage of Figaro, he attends all of its limited performances in secret. This fuels his hatred for Mozart but also creates complicating moments of sympathy between the characters.

Second, Salieri and Mozart are different. We see Salieri in the beginning of the film, a respected composer with reasonable talent, likable, civilised: a fortunate, content man. Enter Mozart, a loud and crass man, and from Salieri’s (and therefore the audience’s) point of view undeserving of his talent. Where Salieri is reserved, Mozart is boisterous; where Salieri is knowledgeable, Mozart is ignorant; where Salieri is manipulative, Mozart is naive. Interestingly, this is perpetuated throughout the film, but increasingly in reverse. As Mozart’s flamboyance, braying laughter, thoughtlessness and tactlessness give way to a much more subdued and arguably more sympathetic character, Salieri becomes aggressive, overtly nasty (see the scene with Mrs Mozart) and cruel.

This balancing of Salieri’s villainy with the tempered Mozart is crucial to allow the two characters to stay at opposite ends of the spectrum as the story progresses. It maintains the diametrically opposite relationship and forms the contrast against which Salieri’s descent can be more clearly seen. At the same time, the love for music tethers the increasingly villainous protagonist and his increasingly sympathetic antagonist to each other, never allowing them to drift apart.

Thirdly, Salieri’s justification is clear. From Mozart’s introduction and his tactless reworking of Salieri’s welcome composition in a public and humiliating manner, we understand Salieri. Who has not felt mediocre, envious, and bitter at the success of others, and presumably with less cause? His every petty thought is relatable on some level. Upon Mozart’s arrival, Salieri’s talent is instantly dwarfed, his self-image and ambition crushed. He is humiliated and insulted. It is no great stretch to see that he wants retribution. Maybe even deserves it. Unlike weaker villains, Salieri gives us someone with whom to identify, leading us every tiny step of the way into the role of villain. It is a well-crafted slippery slope, each move so easily justifiable almost until the end. Particularly since Salieri’s jealousy is ever tempered by his love for Mozart’s music. Even in his final deceit, Salieri supports the composition whilst working to destroy the composer.

Finally, Salieri is unable to win. Even though Mozart dies, poor and almost alone, Salieri still loses and destroys himself through his own inadequacy, jealousy and rage. If the story had ended with Mozart’s burial, the film would have been a much simpler story of one man destroying another. Instead, we are given the final scene: Salieri wheeled away, old, mad and bitter, having endured a front-row seats to his own destruction for 32 years, watching himself judged by time and found lacking. All to the tune of the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor.

“Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you all.”

Exit stage.

Book review: World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (Max Brooks) was the zombie book I couldn’t be bothered reading, mostly because the trailer for the film left me a bit underwhelmed. (I have still not seen the film, having had it described to me as ‘Globetrotting Brad Pitt’, so any advice as to whether it is worth my time would be greatly appreciated.) But I picked it up a few weeks ago, looking for something entertaining and gory, and I was positively surprised.

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Written as a series of interviews, Brooks weaves a nice story of a zombie plague, pulling in politicians, civilians and military personnel amongst others, to paint a surprisingly believable picture of a plague outbreak. Whilst the zombies themselves are make-believe, I did not have to suspend my disbelief at the portrayal of profiteers, accidental heroes, conspiracy theorists, desperate parents and myopic leaders. Indeed, some of the themes, such as isolationism and inept leadership, can hardly be said to belong solely to the province of fiction. The interviews span a range of responses to a pandemic, and the individual voices were done well enough for me to believe in the characters.

Writing the book as an assembly of individual accounts has one very obvious advantage: it allows for a generous number of viewpoints. When describing a global event, the number of responses and fates will be vast, and Brooks gets to cover more of these than if the story had followed a more traditional trajectory. This way, we can choose from all countries and all walks of life without shoehorning characters into one storyline. We also remove geographical constraints, meaning there will be more to the story than a besieged wal-mart or a stretch of motorway. Whilst it remains quite US-centric, it is refreshing to note that other continents get more than a brief mention.

In many ways, the book reminded me slightly of The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner due to the multi-strand narrative, although Brunner’s book is thematically different (deteriorating environment) and somewhat more dystopian.

Which brings me to my perhaps sole quibble with World War Z: it is less bleak than it could have been, despite being more serious than its predecessor The Zombie Survival Manual. I know it may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but for me, it would have packed a greater punch if it had received a greater infusion of pessimism. That being said, I still enjoyed it immensely and know many readers who prefer a hint of hope with their horror.

Brooks has said that he views the zombie more like a virus than a traditional predator, and that it is this aspect, the lack of any hope for rational discourse or negotiation, that makes the zombie frightening. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, predation and contagions/infection are the two categories of horror that tend to generate the most successful horror films. Zombies tick both boxes. Yet, they somehow take a back seat in World War Z.

For sure, the zombie in World War Z is the catalyst, the fuel of the story and the indisputable monster of the tale, but the focus remains on the fighting living, not the walking dead. While there is no shortage of gore, I still thought that World War Z was more about the response to the zombie than the zombie itself. The zombie is the monster du jour: an oft-cited metaphor for an uncontrollable world, for pandemics, nuclear war and economic collapse. If we accept the zombie as metaphor, then World War Z becomes a tale of an overwhelmed world, our modern fears illustrated by a vast, unstoppable zombie horde, and it ends with the possible route to regaining control.

Then again, it might just be about monsters.

Either way, it works for me. I read in two thoroughly enjoyable sittings (which would have been one but for the need to attend work). In my view, it’s right up there with Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century in terms of zombie excellence. If you’ve read it, or read any other zombie books that you can recommend, let me know in the comments!

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