Mozart's Sister: The Stained-Glass Ceiling 


Mozart's Sister
Directed By René Fé ret

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart did indeed have a sister, who performed alongside him until their father/manager booted her from the band to underline his son's prodigious abilities. A gifted singer and instrumentalist, she was rumored-the historical record is spotty—to have had comparable gifts of composition, though an age intolerant of women leaves this a matter of speculation.

Enter Mozart's Sister, a fictionalized work taking that culture as its subject, though it's content to do only the shallowest of skimming and make the least controversial of points for gender equality. Once again a film with feminist themes is packaged safely as period drama, lest anyone suggest bias remains in modern society.

The film begins when Wolfgang is 11—his gift already evident and his reputation growing—and the 16-year-old Nannerl (played by Marie Fé ret, the director's daughter) travels with the family to her brother's concerts, mostly content, though she's turned away from the lessons her father gives Wolfgang ("Harmony is beyond most people, especially women."). In an act of luck and defiance she talks her way into composing for the Dauphin, a man similarly trying to escape from under the influence of his father the king.

The film does well conveying the family's tedium and poverty, but it comes up short when probing the emotional depths of the day-to-day. Marie only seems interested in music, the family business, by default, and her muted acceptance of the glass ceiling caps the emotional stakes pretty low. Compared to the operatic tragedy of Amadeus, where Salieri drove himself mad trying to bridge the gap between his ability and ambition, this is small potatoes. The chaste Dauphin's attempted rebellion against his lustful father by commissioning work from Nannerl has potential for drama, but he's seen so unclearly that any impact is lost in translation. (There's an implication that he's a closeted homosexual, but the film remains infuriatingly tight-lipped on the idea.)

Mozart's Sister is handsomely mounted, with a production design informal enough to feel authentic, but there are too many detours, too much muddlement in the characters, which does the otherwise serviceable performances no favors. How does Marie feel about her brother, anyway? One scene they're joyfully improvising a duet, then later she seems indifferent as an illness takes him near death. For a film with this subject, it never seems interested in answering the question begged by the title: what was it like to be Mozart's sister?

Opens August 19


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