A jealous music composer seeks sadistic revenge on Mozart and God for his mediocrity.
Winner of 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, and Best Adapted Screenplay
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Screaming “Mozart! Mozart!” an old man slits his throat and is found lying in a pool of blood. It’s 1823 and the failed suicide attempt finds Antonio Salieri in a psychiatric institution confronted with a priest. Salieri sneers at him – he’s had enough of God. Through flashbacks he regales the priest with the unholy story of how he, a once famous music composer and God-fearing man, descended into an inferno of madness and killed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
At the genesis of his career, Salieri pledged his chastity to God if, in return, He would endow him with divine musical talent. And, for a time, Salieri became the most famous composer in all of Europe and the Emperor of Austria’s royal composer. However, old Salieri recalls, in 1781, one fateful night at an exquisite ball, this all changed. Young Salieri waits eagerly to meet Mozart who he has heard is a musical genius – writing his first opera at 12 years old! However, Mozart – with little time before his performance – cannot be found. Walking into an empty room, Salieri quickly hides as two people explode through the doors: a laughing man chasing a shrieking girl. He tackles her to the ground and they start to kiss. He tells her filthy jokes and laughs in a unique way – high pitched and ridiculously loud. Finally, he proposes to her. Salieri watches the crude man until he hears the sound of music. The man jumps and runs out of the room. Salieri also leaves. He is horrified when he returns to the composition room to see the crude man conducting the music. Alas, he is Mozart. This moment shakes Salieri’s faith: “Why would God choose an obscene child to be his instrument?”.
The two men don’t meet until later when Mozart walks in on Salieri giving the Emperor piano lessons (the Emperor sucks). The Emperor proclaims that Salieri has composed a “March of Welcome” for Mozart which Salieri plays. Barely listening to the song, Mozart plays it back and reconstructs it into a masterpiece, which will later be known as the “Non più andrai” march from his opera The Marriage of Figaro. Salieri is greatly insulted and cops another slap across the face when the Emperor asks Mozart to write him an opera. Mozart is overwhelmed with joy! He announces, laughing in his peculiar manner, that it will be in German and set in a brothel – Vienna doesn’t know love, he explains sadly. Salieri anxiously waits for Mozart’s opera. After its performance, the Emperor admits that it’s “new” but there’s “too many notes” in it – it’s overwhelming. Mozart, 26 years old, is offended – every note is perfect! To add to this, Mozart’s father, a control freak who would parade Mozart around the world as a child prodigy, wants him back under his thumb in his hometown of Salzburg. Mozart manages to stay in Vienna and marries Constanze – the shrieking girl he chased at the ball. She is assertive, opinionated and childish like Mozart, however, when they marry, Mozart’s lack of work finds them with little money, and she constantly urges him to find work that pays. Mozart tries tutoring piano but this ends up being more trouble than it’s worth.
A royal musical position opens and Mozart, proud and aware of his genius, believes it’s his: “I’m the best composer in Vienna!”. However, the Emperor won’t give it to him unless he submits samples of the opera he’s been secretly writing. Mozart becomes furious – he doesn’t show anyone his work until it’s done! He refuses to submit. Constanze, fed up with financial poverty, pushes him to submit but Mozart fiercely refuses. Finally, behind his back, Constanze goes down to Salieri with Mozart’s samples. They’re originals, she says, first and only drafts. When Salieri looks at them he’s in pure awe – no corrections! He gasps – it’s as if he’s “simply written down music finished in his head … like he’d taken down dictation”, perfect music, “the very voice of God”, it was “miraculous”. This moment accentuates Salieri’s love/hate relationship with Mozart – he loves and is in awe of his talent, but he HATES him because that talent is not his. Moreover, he starts to hate God for favouring Mozart – who never denied himself anything – over him: “No God of mercy, just God of torture” – God taunts him with the desire to write music but denies him the talent. Bitter, Salieri tantalises Constanze with the promise that one word from him and the Emperor will give Mozart the position – but only if she sleeps with him. She removes her clothes but Salieri, unable to do it, reveals her nudity to a house-boy. She leaves, shamed and crying.
From that moment on, Salieri vows to hinder and harm God’s instrument, Mozart, while masquerading as his friend. Secretly, Salieri paints Mozart as a lecherous fiend to the Emperor, alleging he molested an opera singer twice! Also, saying nothing about Mozart’s incredible samples, Mozart doesn’t get the lucrative position he badly needs and Salieri lies to him that the Emperor just won’t let him have it. Mozart confides in Salieri about his financial problems – people pack theatres to hear my music but they won’t pay me to teach their daughters (they think he’s a deviant for some reason). But he proudly hints at the opera he’s writing – it’s going to be huge! It’s going to explode all over Europe in 6 months! It’s going to make him very rich.
Surprisingly, Mozart’s father, Leopold, shows up. Mozart lies about his life to make it look perfect but Leopold knows about his debts. Mozart promises his father that he’ll be proud of his new opera but Leopold wants him back in Salzburg. Taking his father to a drunken masquerade party, Mozart pouts out his bottom lip and mockingly plays Salieri’s music to a bawdy crowd. Salieri, behind a mask, watches coldly. The old Salieri explains to the priest that it wasn’t Mozart laughing, but God, at his mediocrity.
Scheming, Salieri sends his maidservant, Lorl, to work at Mozart’s house as a paid ‘gift’ from an anonymous “admirer”. Mozart gladly accepts her. Lorl informs Salieri that Mozart writes music all day! When the house is empty, Salieri enters and discovers Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. It is written in Italian and is based on the French play that was band by the Emperor. Salieri tells the Emperor. The Emperor confronts Mozart and asserts that the play stirs up tension between the social classes and turns people against the crown. No, Mozart denies, becoming a passionate storyteller: it’s about love and it’s new – people will go made for it! He grows jittery with excitement when he explains the 20-minute pre-opera music and then plays the opera’s captivating opening. To Salieri’s disbelief, the Emperor allows it. Salieri tries to find opportunities to thwart Mozart – like when he secretly dobs Mozart in for putting ballet in the opera when the Emperor has band ballet. Heartbroken, Mozart thus removes a chunk of the opera but, when the Emperor comes to the theatre (and he never does) and watches the hacked opera, he demands the ballet be reinstated, again to Salieri’s disbelief.
On the opera’s opening night, Salieri watches in hateful awe. It was astounding. “God was singing through this little man” to the whole world, making my defeat more bitter with every passing bar, old Salieri recalls to the priest. Then, Salieri narrates, a “miracle” happened – the Emperor yawned. The opera, though genius, is unliked by the audience. Mozart fumes over this to his ‘friend’ Salieri and then thanks him for standing by him. Salieri asks Mozart for the honour of his presence at his own opera. Mozart admits the honour is all is. The audience loves Salieri’s opera and the Emperor proclaims it is the best music yet written and hails Salieri as opera’s “brightest star”. Mozart is shamed and goes home. He is met by Salzburg men who inform him of his father’s death. Mozart took his father’s death and turned it into the blackest opera ever written. Old Salieri professes that Leopold was raised from the dead that night – a great black figure. Mozart had summoned up his own father to accuse him infront of the world – it was terrifying and wonderful to watch. Salieri watched every Don Giovani performance “worshipping” sound only he seemed to hear. Old Salieri recalls that the bitter old man was still possessing his son from the grave – and that was when he saw a horrible way he could triumph over both Mozart and God. One night, Salieri, disguised in the black mask Leopold wore at the masquerade party, knocks on Mozart’s door. When Mozart answers, he is struck with a horrifying image that pierces him to the core. Salieri commissions Mozart to write him an opera for the dead, for a man who never got his requiem (playing with Mozart’s mind, he infers Leopold). Salieri gives him money and promises more upon the requiem’s completion. Salieri’s ultimate revenge plot is this – he will kill Mozart and claim the requiem as his own, reaping the fame he deserves. Mozart will write his own funeral mass and God will be “forced to listen”.
Mozart meanwhile begins to sink into an alcoholic stupor under the pressure of financial troubles, his creative projects and his father’s cruel ghost. Seduced by the freedom and fantastical elements of lower class theatre, Mozart writes The Magic Flute. His wife angrily demands he stop because he’s not getting paid and they desperately need money – write the requiem! Mozart affirms that he can’t – it’s killing him. As time passes, he becomes more exhausted, sicker and delusional, and Constanze, with their baby, leaves. On the opening night of The Magic Flute, halfway through conducting, Mozart collapses. Salieri, Mozart’s devout audience member, sees this happen and takes him home.
Regaining consciousness in his bed, Mozart smiles at his ‘loyal friend’. Salieri confesses: I wouldn’t miss anything you’ve written, you are the greatest composer known to me. There is a knock at the door and Salieri answers. One of the opera’s actors hands him Mozart’s share of the ticket money. Salieri returns to Mozart and says that the money is from the masked man who says that should Mozart finish the requiem by tomorrow night he’ll get $100. Mozart, drained and sick, lies in bed and dictates the opera to Salieri who hurriedly writes it down. Salieri is given the unique experience of witnessing Mozart compose – he really can hear finished music in his head. At times, though feverish and exhausted, Mozart dictates too fast for Salieri who becomes overwhelmed by the amount of music pouring out of this waning genius. Mozart asks Salieri if he believes in hell to which Salieri replies “Oh yes”. They continue until morning when Mozart asks for a little sleep. Salieri hesitantly allows him to and moments later Constanze with the baby bursts into the bedroom. She sees her bedridden husband and throws the unfinished opera, Requiem Mass in D Minor, into a cupboard and locks it. She demands the reluctant Salieri leave. Before he does however, Constanze strokes her sleeping husband’s head and, over the money littered on the bed, tries to coo him awake. He doesn’t move. He’s dead.
Old Salieri confesses to the priest that ultimately, God would rather kill Mozart than to have him, a mediocrity, share in his glory. Salieri finishes by absolving not only the priest but the entire psychiatric ward for their own mediocrity. Mozart’s high-pitched laugh rings over the film’s final moments.
I have to admit, when I sat down to watch Amadeus with my friend’s parents (I accidentally rocked up at her place while she wasn’t there, so I hung out with her folks) I thought “This is going to be a snoozer”. Maybe it was because I had NO CLUE what this movie was about, but anyway, I was dead wrong! This movie could have been filmed this year the comedy is so modern (that is, able to be appreciated today). Mozart is a crack up – his ridiculous laugh alone is hilarious and his sleazy jokes and nature are snort-worthy. The plot is high-concept: a fictional story about a jealous composer in Mozart’s day that wanted to kill him to get even with God? Fantastic. This film taps on serious ideas – maddening jealousy and the irrational belief that one can bribe God into giving them what they want – and how one’s greed-focused faith is shaken when God does His will and not their’s. The film is of course based on Shaffer’s theatre play of the same name and draws loosely on Mozart’s real life. At times the story can drag – only because there’s so much in it – but other than that it’s wildly entertaining and leaves you in true awe and appreciation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s genius and music.