Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
It is a riveting scene, and one that at a glance would seem entirely uncinematic: the younger man, sick, pale and sweaty, lies in bed and dictates music to the older man, who scribbles musical notes onto paper as if it was a race against time – which it is. The brilliant composer will not live much longer. It is a scene that doesn’t seem to need the big screen: it could just as well be performed on stage, and this is in fact where it originated. None of this seems immediately cinematic – yet it is one of the great moments of 1980s cinema: Mozart and and his bitter, envious rival Salieri racing against death to get his final masterpiece, the Requiem in D minor, K. 626, out of the dying man’s head and onto paper so it would be preserved for posterity.
I don’t know why Amadeus isn’t talked of more often. Perhaps it’s that people think it’s a biopic, which isn’t exactly the most interesting cinematic genre, or a dusty costume drama, but they’d be wrong: Amadeus uses biography and history as its canvas, but the drama it spins is less concerned with biographical factuality than with its themes of creative genius, mediocrity and envy. Its script is never less than sharp, and it is performed beautifully, in particular by the two leads Tom Hulce (as Mozart) and F. Murray Abraham (as Salieri) but also by a great supporting cast. Much like 2018’s The Favourite, Amadeus doesn’t portray the past with a nostalgic eye and thereby turn it into a museum exhibit, but with its performances, direction and the help of the occasional well-placed anachronism it tells a story whose relevance isn’t limited to the 18th century.
I was nine years old when I saw Amadeus at the cinema. Perhaps it’s not the kind of film most people think about when they think about what they watched at that age, or indeed what they enjoyed watching. I’m sure I didn’t get much of what was going on in the film, but so much of it has stayed with me from that first time I saw the film. The beginning, with old man Salieri having cut his throat in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, as two courtiers eat his melting ice cream; the infernal insane asylum (though no infernal nurse, as in another movie by Miloš Forman); Mozart’s mother-in-law becoming The Magic Flute‘s Queen of the Night through the magic of editing; Mozart’s pink, punk wigs and his high-pitched giggle. But most of all it’s that scene in which Salieri is finally let in, the moment when he finally can reach out and touch the genius he’s envied and hated for a long time – just at the moment when the embodiment of that genius is about to die. It’s a moment when Salieri’s bitterness, his hypocrisy and his resentment of God, the world and the ridiculous, amazing man he’s fashioned into his own personal nemesis, are stripped away – and Salieri encounters divinity directly and for the first time, knowing that he is in no small way responsible for it being the last time as well.
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.