If history had worked out differently, the biopic Mozart’s Sister argues, the strange tradition of casually referring to orchestral composers solely by surname would have hit a snag when it comes to “Mozart.” Unmentioned in Milos Forman’s splashy Amadeus was that Wolfgang was not the family’s only freakish prodigy. His sister, Maria, colloquially known as “Nannerl,” was also trained in the musical arts by their father, a tyrannical man depicted by writer-director René Féret as the 18th-century’s version of a Michael Lohan. Five years older than her brother, she was schlepped around Europe to perform as a duo. Alas, as she grew too old to be a mere stunt act—and as her brother’s star ascended—times less open to female empowerment dictated she must retire to a more ladylike existence.
Nannerl’s sad tale is depicted as dirge in Mozart’s Sister, with Nannerl (Marie Féret, the filmmaker’s daughter) viewed as a teenager watching over the film’s two hours as her dreams dissolve. Father Leopold (Marc Barbé) dissuades her from expanding her repertoire to the violin and organ, as those are “no instrument for a girl.” (“You can have children,” her mother “reassures” her.) Still, she tries to keep the flame going anyway, soon finding kindred spirits in another brother and sister pair. First, Nannerl meets Louise (Lisa Féret), a young, precocious aristocrat who’s spent her whole life sequestered in a nunnery. This drives her to Louise’s brother, a bored Dauphin who fills his time with a passion for art. The Dauphin adores Nannerl’s pieces, but circumstances conspire for this to be another vocational dead end for our poor protagonist.
Though primarily operating as a feminist smackdown of less enlightened times, Mozart’s Sister spends a fair amount of its time immersing itself in history, marveling over carriages that break if you traipse them all over Europe, the introduction of fancy new toilets and a period that turns its most moneyed populace into depressed hermits. It’s less successful when it coyly suggests that maybe, but probably not, but maybe Nannerl had a hand in some of her brother’s early compositions—a claim for which there’s no evidence. But then, this is no Anonymous, in more ways than one.