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After the elderly Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), once a gifted and well-known court composer attempts suicide, claiming he is responsible for killed the famous Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart years before, he is commissioned to an asylum where, bandaged, he sits in confession with a priest. There, he regals the holy man with a terrible but electrifying tale of his past, how he spent his youth hoping to be blessed by God himself to be the greatest composer ever, only to be left wilting in the shadow of the slightly younger but immeasurably more talented Mozart (Tom Hulce).
The story shifts to extended flashbacks as Salieri stands in both awe and contempt for the prodigy, who is shockingly, an undignified and irresponsible partying oaf seemingly ungrateful for his unearthly gifts, what Salieri perceives as a miracle of the Lord meant to laugh at his mediocrity. And so, he plots to undo Mozart by concealing his identity and requesting of the financially-strapped Mozart to write a requiem mass, unaware that is meant to be his own.
THAT MOMENT IN
Mozart is not a well man, his spendthrift lifestyle, drinking and overworking leave him often exhausted. He is married to Constance (Elizabeth Berridge), who, after the death of Mozart domineering father, is fed up with her husband’s distractions, argues with him and then takes their young son and leaves him. Mozart is struggling to complete two works, the Requiem for the unknown benefactor and The Magic Flute, a new opera commissioned by the court. It leaves him threadbare and when he finally completes the second, he collapses during its performance, his body giving out.
Salieri, intent on having the secret Requiem finished so that he might take credit when it is played for Mozart’s passing, takes the fallen composer home and props him in bed and convinces him to continue his work under false pretenses. It’s a cleverly maniacal scheme, and with the failing Mozart given no choice, he sets about to work on the piece with Salieri writing as Mozart calls the notes. What follows is a movie moment unlike any other as they commit to composing, their relationship finally a partnership as the room fills with the imagined music of one of Mozart’s great masterpieces.
WHY IT MATTERS
Directed by Miloš Forman, the movie is a multiple Academy Award-winning film winning, taking Best Picture and Best Actor (for Abraham) among others. It’s a lush and technically magnificent movie and while it has any number of remarkable moments, it is this singular moment that best illustrates the true greatness of the story, with its acting and direction some of the best in the movie.
Mozart sits upright at the head of the bed, he’s out of his wig, sweating profusely from sickness. Salieri is at the foot, using a small table, the parchment rolled out and his ink quill furiously transcribing what Mozart dictates. There’s an equality about their position but it’s clear that Mozart is the higher positioned man and we see Salieri, despite his hatred of the Mozart, overtaken by his incredible admiration for him otherwise. He is desperate for Mozart to finish the piece before whatever foul deed he portends to commit is done, but now, in the glow of this master’s talent, as the music flows from Mozart’s mind at intense speeds, it’s clear to Salieri that God is truly working through the sickly man. He sees it has the miracle he believes it to be but also a sign that this same god has scorned him.
It’s a gorgeous sequence that allows the audience to see, in breathtaking harmony, the synchronicity of two great musical minds coming together while the music being written plays over the score. Yet despite their combined artistry, Salieri comes to see that Mozart is the true genius, admitting he can’t understand nor keep up with the seemingly possessed composer as he pumps out layers upon layers of music he can see and hear in his head. Hulce and Abraham are simply a marvel.
As Mozart weakens, the music and tone rises, revealing that indeed, as we suspect, this might very well be the last notes he commits to page and Salieri, consumed by the thrill of being part of such a process, presses him further. But there are still things to be revealed, and riding in the dark of night, approaching fast is someone who will have power over it all. This is a sensational movie moment, an unexpected one to be sure in a film that lends itself to more grand visions, but the closeness and urgency of it all, the minimalism and sheer presence of these two stars make it soar.