Anyone who has read the endless flow of program notes at classical concerts, or seen Amadeus, knows that the life of Mozart is a subject of endless obsession and fascination. Mozart’s Sister sets itself apart by telling another story beneath and off to the side of the Wolfgang saga, concerning his talented but thoroughly squelched prodigy sister, Nannerl, played here with an understated grace by Marie Féret.
In this wisely focused slice-of-life segment of the Mozart family saga, we follow the stage father Léopold’s process of parading his child prodigy son around Europe. We also watch as Léopold, in lockstep with sexist mores of the day, denies his daughter’s worthy desire to study composition, to explore her instinct to “hear notes.” She finds refuge and friendship with one of the King of France’s daughters, a spirited girl who has become a nun, reasoning, “God has chosen to make us girls. Imagine what we could have done had we been boys.” There, in a phrase, is the nutshell message of the film.
Apart from the inherent fascination this film works up, writer/director René Féret has made a modest marvel of a piece of cinema. At root, it’s a costume drama, with lavish garb and aristocratic extravagances, but it is made with a kind of naturally flowing, empathetic warmth. We relate to these characters as flesh and blood, and conflicted emotional and psychic states, rather than as stuffy relics of a foreign reality and bygone era.
In some measure, Mozart’s Sister belongs to the genre of historical drama dealing with the periphery of the looming narrative of a legend, like the underrated Copying Beethoven or Percy Adlon’s Céleste, about Proust’s maid. In reality, Nannerl went on to a long but musically dormant life in obedience to her demanding father’s wishes, eventually marrying an older baron and devoting herself to tending her brother’s musical output and helping ensure his legacy. An enticing bit of musical history and a fine drama on its own terms, Mozart’s Sister zooms in on a brief moment when her muse’s call was nearly heeded.