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Film Review

Mozart's Sister

It's hard for us today to understand the barriers that prevented women from establishing careers and independent identities, even during much of the 20th century. But for women in the late 18th century, even those bursting with talent and ambition, the barriers were nearly insurmountable. The story of the oldest sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in not unknown, but French director Rene Feret has written and directed a gorgeous and closely observed film, "Mozart's Sister", that follows her as a young woman. Maria Anna Mozart, known as Nannerl, was Wolfgang's oldest sister (by about 5 years) and an immensely talented musician and composer. Her father, Leopold, realized her talent but encouraged her younger brother, because he felt it was inappropriate for women to be involved in music, beyond playing the harpsichord. And certainly not the violin, which she loved but was forbidden to play. Both he and her mother were afraid that her talent and public performances would make her unmarriageable. Much of the story is taken by Feret from the father's many extant letters.

The father narrates as the film opens with the family, the father, the mother, Nannerl, and Wolfgang, traveling to give performances, principally to royal audiences. Nannerl would play the harpsichord and sing, and Wolfgang the violin. These performances were how they earned their living. At this point Wolfgang was about 9 years old although the father would lie about his son's age to emphasize his talent. Their virtuosity astonished Europe, and they were in great demand. Feret focuses on the family, and we see them interacting in the ways that families with young children interact, from meals to pillow fights at night, to the siblings teasing each other about their looks ("your horsey face"). Their carriage breaks down and they are forced to spend several nights in an abbey, where Nannerl meets the youngest three daughters of the French king. The daughters have been forced into the abbey by the influence of a powerful cardinal. The youngest daughter, Louise, lonely and desperate to see her parents again, develops a friendship with Nannerl that is just one of the many elements of this often surprising film. The family goes to Paris to play for the King, and a second relationship develops with the Dauphin (heir apparent to the throne) that becomes an important part of Nannerl's life. A life that becomes characterized by self-sacrifice and sublimation to her father's wishes. A particularly sad scene has Louise saying "Imagine how different our destiny would be if we had been boys", which in many ways, summarizes the film.

The soundtrack is ravishing, with original music resembling Mozart compositions, but with some actual Mozart in the singing scenes. "Mozart's Sister" is one of the most beautiful films I have seen in many years. The cinematography is gorgeous, with an authenticity that puts English period costume drama to shame. There is not a single scene that is less than marvelous. Much was filmed on location inside Versailles, and you just can't take your eyes off the architecture and furnishings. Even the scenes shot in candlelight in their apartment are beautiful. The costuming is wonderful, and to my eye, looked highly authentic. This film is as visually rich as I have ever seen; sumptuous, without being precious, yet character driven. The acting is uniformly outstanding, with the director using his two daughters as Nannerl and Louise. Rene Feret himself appears in a bit part as a music professor who says to his students: "Talent is not enough, you need passion". Feret has both, and has made a subtle, thoughtful, highly accomplished film. This is probably his first that has screened in America; hopefully not the last. I loved this film for its intimate look at family life, Nannerl's poignant story, the visuals, and the music. Easily makes it into my top ten. Just opened at the Bridge, and although often said, "Mozart's Sister" should be seen on the big screen.

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