By Brad Laidman | August 22, 2001

“All I ever wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If he didn’t want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire and lust in my body and then deny me the talent?” This is one hell of a bad a*s warped movie! It is essentially the haunted confession of forgotten composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), perhaps the single character I most identify with in the history of movies. Salieri prays to God to give him musical talent like his idol the boy genius Mozart. He wants nothing more but to be great and to play his music in tribute to the greatness of God a lot like what John Coltrane tried to do. He is even depraved enough to think that his Father’s death is a personal gift from up above. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a hack. People like his music but perhaps only he knows exactly how much better Mozart is on his worst day than he is on his best. He is cursed by his yearning inability to create great art but also because he alone knows the real thing when he hears it. It’s like being slapped in the face with your insignificance and mediocrity every day of your life. It’s nice to be able to appreciate art but dreadfully painful not to be able to approach it yourself.
To top it off, when he meets his idol Mozart (Tom Hulce) he finds him to be an obnoxious spoiled brat, who embarrasses his talent and despoils Salieri’s women. Incensed at the randomness of God given talent, Salieri chooses the side of the devil and decides to take God’s beautiful thing down. He sabotages his career and starts playing mind games with him. Eventually he even gets Mozart to write a Requiem for his own death. Along the way we get some nice exposure to Mozart’s musical genius, and lots of angry madness from Abraham, who won an Oscar here and definitely deserved it.
My favorite scene has Jeffrey Jones as the Emperor desperately trying to play a simple tune Salieri has written to honor Mozart’s arrival. Salieri groans as Jones butchers his mediocre piece, but Mozart commits it to memory immediately and improves on it immensely moments after sitting down at the piano. Similarly Mozart’s death bed composing to a transcribing Salieri is probably the best example of genius ever filmed. Not only is this guy brilliant, but it comes flowing out of him effortlessly like water from a tap. He writes up his scores beautifully without errors off the top of his head.
Hulce’s goofy performance is pretty fun to watch in and of itself. He is out for sheer partying and joy like the hardest living Rock Star, a dandy fop with a silly laugh and an ego to match. Great fun is also had at the expense of all the people that should recognize Mozart’s brilliance but don’t. The whole world is applauding Pat Boone while Salieri alone can hear Little Richard. Of course there are neat costumes, wonderful musical performances, and enough history to make it good for you, but at its essence this is the perfect film to watch when you aren’t everything you want to be and jealous as an angry bear that someone else is. How can anyone resist a movie about a guy who takes on God, tosses a crucifix into a fireplace, and arguably wins a haunted lonely victory? I wish I had written this, but unfortunately all I can really do is appreciate it.
Salieri: Mediocrities everywhere, now and to come: I absolve you all! Amen! Amen! Amen!

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