The subject of much historical curiosity, Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart is also an ideal tragic hero. The older sister to Wolfgang Amadeus, she traveled Europe in the mid-18th century alongside her brother and their supportive parents, playing the harpsichord to back up Wolfgang’s violin. Evidence suggests she harbored ambitions of composing her own works, but society held her down: Once Nannerl reached marrying age, she was forced to abandon her musical heritage and promptly dropped off the map. An inspiration to her younger brother, Nannerl may deserve more credit for Wolfgang’s existing legacy than conventional accounts provide her, but the passage of time has made it difficult to reach any definitive conclusions.
Open-ended mysteries give storytellers room to play. “Mozart’s Sister,” a fictionalized take on Nannerl’s teenage years written and directed by French filmmaker René Féret, puts a reasonable face on the character’s blurry legacy. Predominantly set during the family’s 1763 tour of European aristocracy, Féret emphasizes the shy Nannerl (played by the director’s daughter, Marie Féret) and her constant desire to take center stage. Wolfgang (David Moreau), a 10-year-old subject to the vast expectations of their father Léopold (Marc Barbé) barely exists as more than a supportive prop in Nannerl’s plight. At once beloved by her father and considered a secondary investment, Nannerl never seems convinced that she can realize her dream, but continually remains addicted to it. “I suffer my father’s preference,” she sighs, acknowledging that Wolfgang’s career will always eclipse her own.
Féret’s screenplay fleshes out Nannerl’s personality with her routine attempts to change that dynamic. Banned from Wolfgang’s composition classes, she eavesdrops from another room. When a friend asks Nannerl to deliver a letter to a young royal banned from coming close to unmarried women, she must dress as a boy, and takes the opportunity to step into her brother’s shoes. “Pity the poor artist not driven by passion,” someone tells her, and Nannerl repeatedly shows that, at least in that regard, she’s rich indeed.
These mini-adventures proceed with a quiet, solemn progression, dominated by the overarching tragedy of a woman inescapably bound to the expectations of her time. The dialogue has a talky, somewhat stilted theatricality and occasionally suffers from the synthetic quality plaguing many low budget period pieces, but Marie Féret’s performance gives the proceedings a realistic counterweight. The older Féret delicately explores the tension between Nannerl’s father’s supportive approach and the boundaries of his expectations. With scene after scene of understatement, “Mozart’s Sister” constantly approaches the possibility of teen rebellion while making its impossibility the only certainty of Nannerl’s oppressed existence.
Less biopic than character study, “Mozart Study” lingers in Nannerl’s teen years, implying that she never quite left them. “Devotion does not negate temptation,” she’s told, and must agree, for no matter how much she commits to societal expectations, her musical interests hold strong. Féret ends with a close-up of his heroine’s mournful young face, while several decades of events are described in a brief caption superimposed on the frame. For everything that “Mozart’s Sister” imagines, it leaves much more up to imagination.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening in New York and Los Angeles this weekend, “Mozart’s Sister” should generate a solid turnout from a cross-section of classical music fans and French cinema aficionados, although its long-term prospects are comparatively slight.