On paper, Mozart’s Sister reads like one more surface-deep period piece whose alleged “feminism” consists principally in the historical distance that allows the viewer a privileged position of superiority to the mores of a bygone era. While there’s little question that René Féret’s 18th-century-set film revolves around just such an ironic distancing and that it often spells out its talking points (“Imagine how different our destinies would be if we were born boys,” one young woman reflects to the titular heroine), as enacted by a uniformly effective cast and presented in scenes replete with unhurried, detailed nuance, the movie frequently breathes fresh life into decidedly unpromising material.
For all its broad historical scope, Féret’s is a quiet, intimate film, the exact opposite of the alternatively bombastic and analytical orientation of Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere, another recent cinematic attempt to rescue an unknown female figure from the dustbins of history. But Bellocchio’s insistence on turning his project into a consideration of the cinematic image, the formation of official history, and the interaction between the two points of inquiry, gave the film an intellectual heft to counter the more pedestrian depiction of a woman wronged. Sticking to the surface, Féret’s film has only his daughter Marie’s performance as Nannerl Mozart, the 15-year-old sister of the younger, soon-to-be-legendary wunderkind known as “Wolfy” to rely on. Through looks of subdued yearning rather than hot-tempered outbursts, Marie Féret movingly conveys the sadness of her realization that she’s “not like other girls” while expressing the disappointments of both her paucity of options as a woman and her ultimately disappointing flirtation with the French Dauphin.
Instead of being allowed to nurse her talents for composition and violin playing (we’re made to understand in no uncertain terms that she’s got a real knack for both), Nannerl is forced by her father to play the role of harpsichord and vocal accompanist for her younger brother as he wows the courts of Europe as part of a touring shock-and-awe campaign. While not devoid of a mitigating tenderness, the scenes between father and daughter are where the film adheres most to the allowing-present-day-audiences-to-safely-wag-their-fingers template as Nannerl expresses a desire to learn composition and her father tells her that such things are not for women. Instead, the secret heart of the movie consists in Nannerl’s friendship with a French princess (Lisa Féret, the director’s second daughter), a lonely but still wide-eyed 13-year-old isolated by royal decree in a remote abbey. The two take immediately to each other, the princess’s irrepressible enthusiasm matched by Nannerl’s more sober delight in the connection. Like Ms. Mozart, the younger girl’s options in life are severely circumscribed (it’s either marriage or the church—never mind her royal position), and it’s in a pair of late scenes between the two young women, their circumstances significantly altered, that the pair’s clear-eyed understanding of a woman’s untenable situation and their less acute partial recognition of the delusions necessary to cope with it are most forcefully expressed. But for the rest, Mozart’s Sister is too often just one more rehashing of the “Aw, didn’t women have it tough then” thematic that never forces the viewer to acknowledge that maybe they haven’t got it as great as we’d like to think today.