Possession of true genius is no guarantee of greatness – more careful cultivation of that talent than usual is required to prevent implosion. But what sort of attention is needed for someone who works in the shadow cast by a genius? Intriguing questions abound in Mozart’s Sister, a subtle work that considers whether Nannerl Mozart was denied a similar path to greatness due to the work of her brother, whether some of his work was actually hers (his early compositions were penned by her hand) and what has been lost to the assumptions of past generations that women were incapable of musical achievement. Gender inequality comes into play, though a feminist screed is thankfully avoided. This is an intimate film that maintains a close focus on a gifted family while retaining a distant sensibility that avoids unnecessarily harsh sermonizing. It is far too easy to chastise past generations for assuming that ability was dictated by race or sex – such judgments are still made today in the muted darkness of one’s own mind. There are no finger-wagging moments in Mozart’s Sister – it attempts to be a picture in time, inhabited by characters ruled by restraint crafting music that will last centuries, then surrounded by silence.
The Mozart children had a renowned teacher in Leopold, and spent the lion’s share of their formative years on the road touring Europe. Salons both private and royal were treated to their compositions, starring Wolfgang performing in a normal fashion and with gimmicks if need be; Nannerl functioned as support staff. Leopold drove them all with fanatical zeal in an attempt to preserve his son’s works for all time, or perhaps with a hunger for his own glory. His opening letter intones “each moment is lost forever.” For the sister, she makes no choices of her own – she is banned from playing violin, as only men could master its intricate notes. She bears mute witness to her brother received as a hero by monarchs, though she exhibits no jealousy. Nannerl only wishes to make her own path, and over the course of the film, she makes awkward attempts in this direction. This is a character study above all, considering how expectations shape our character, and the severe limitations placed on our potential. It is suggested that Wolfgang’s sister may indeed have been a genius, or at the very least possessing great skill in both composition and performance on multiple instruments. The point being, it is impossible to know what could have been.
Nannerl pursues love in a time when mates rarely chose their own match; the Dauphin (heir apparent to the throne of France) is intrigued by her, though when they first meet, she is clad in the kit of a French boy. Mozart’s Sister has a bit of fun with the freedom provided by gender reversal, in that as a man, she can compose, play violin, and lead an orchestral performance. In this she reveals her true nature leading a string section in a moving concerto that she wrote for her new infatuation. Eventually, she attempts to earn her own income providing lessons in harpsichord, the unsure territory of an independent woman. She is still young, and unsure about where she will land, but seems to suspect this is all coming to an end. Society in the 1760s had already crafted a position for her, and her father was only trying to help by curtailing her expectations. In a way, Mozart’s Sister is about how people of great position or skill still come to accept their fate. In a parallel storyline, Nannerl befriends Louise de France, one of the younger daughters of King Louis XV. She is initially mischievous, but always distant, as though her position is already set in her mind. The Dauphin informs Nannerl that he is expected to marry, as royal heirs tend to do, though his behavior suggests a deeper petrification of the soul. They all conform to expectations and fit neatly within their prescribed slots.
Though she later labored to preserve her brother’s works, it is left as an enigma as to what her contribution to music and art may have been. Beyond that, it is never clear whether she found any solace in her place in time. Perhaps this is irrelevant, and everyone learns to accept this as such. Mozart’s Sister does not presume to answer any such queries, leaving it all to hang with a light air of tragedy. Rene Feret has crafted a subtle and thoughtful work that above all observes, all the while reminding us of the extraordinary music that came of the Mozart family.