The last time I took to the movie theater to attempt a glimpse into the life of Wolfgang Mozart, it was 1984 — and the movie “Amadeus” was all the rage. It imagines Mozart’s life and music via flashbacks from the supposedly insanely jealous Antonio Salierie, another prolific composer during the late 18th century.
Friday morning I headed to Harkins Camelview 5 in Scottsdale to enjoy a René Féret film called “Mozart’s Sister,” a fictional account (in French, with English subtitles) of Mozart’s very real, very talented big sister. Also his rather odd but quite likeable mother — and his harsh, ambitious father. There’s enough material for a movie imagining the inner lives of each.
Best to have started with the sister, I suppose, because Maria Anna Mozart (called Nannerl) seems to have made the greatest sacrifices for her brother’s art. Parents, in this case Leopold and Anna Maria, are expected to do such things. But only siblings of very special children, whether they be especially gifted or especially challenging (or both), know the sacrifices of their own longings that living in such a family necessitates.
Nannerl’s case is more intriguing than most because she seems to choose, long after she’s free to escape the shadow of her brother, to remain there — steadfastly, and without wavering. Perhaps she longed to be like the mother she at once admired and somehow secretly disdained. Perhaps she decided the work of breaking free was too great for the modesty of the reward in a day and age when women didn’t have a world of options.
What historians have long confirmed becomes clear quite early in the film. Nannerl is at least as gifted, in composing and playing music, as her brother. Maybe more so. But their father forbids her to play the violin after a certain age, and refuses in the film to teach her the notation she desperately craves as a way to write down the original music constantly streaming through her head.
“Mozart’s Sister” is a compelling exploration of what the transition from childhood to womanhood might have been like during the late 18th century –where women only learned about menstruation after finding that first red stain on a white nightgown, where shuttered girls found ways to read about forbidden subjects, where letters sealed with wax were sent by secret messenger to objects of one’s affection. No texting or tampons here, I’m afraid.
The movie feels a bit cursory in some ways, revealing little about individual characters and their motivations by virtue of wanting to give everyone equal time. It feels quite slow at some points, a plus perhaps for those seeking to figure out the inner lives of all those Mozarts and their many aquaintances.
I was most intrigued by depictions of women’s friendships at the time, no less hindered than they are today by assumptions about class and station in life. The adolescent women in “Mozart’s Sister” clearly crave more companionship (as well as family time) than they’re getting — and it’s fun to consider whether the reasons back then parallel those we see today.
Still, I’d have preferred a quicker-paced posing of these questions. If “Amadeus” left you drenched in the unsubtleties of Mozart’s braggadocious bufoonery, “Mozart’s Sister” will leave you finessing the finer points of why women sometimes sell themselves short amidst the glory given to others.
Note: You’ll have another opportunity to muse on such things as Arizona Theatre Company presents a stage adaptation of Jean Webster’s 1912 novel titled “Daddy Long Legs.” It’s the tale of an orphan sent to college by a rich benefactor in a day and age when women rarely considered their own talents or expected opportunities to use them.
Coming up: Ethnic studies — from classroom to stage