Arts movie review

The wronged Maria Callas

Maria Callas defends her reputation in new documentary

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A new documentary about Maria Callas aims to use only her own words.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Maria by Callas
Directed by Tom Volf
Screenplay by Tom Volf
Starring Maria Callas, Joyce DiDonato

Maria by Callas is an ambitious documentary in which its guiding principle acts as a double-edged sword. Aiming to debunk accusations against the late soprano of being a tempestuous diva, director Tom Volf attempts to create a narrative of the life of Maria Callas by only using sources which contain her or were created by her. These materials, some never-before-seen, include archival recordings of Callas’s operatic performances, press interviews, unpublished letters written by Callas, and footage from the press and paparazzi. While Maria by Callas is successful in revealing Callas’s grace and intelligence, the film’s meandering direction left me wanting for a more traditional approach towards documentaries.

The documentary progresses chronologically through Callas’s life with narration of Callas’s letters by Joyce DiDonato, an acclaimed operatic mezzo-soprano. Most of the major events in her life are covered, including the Rome Cancellation — in which Callas cancelled mid-performance due to contraction of bronchitis, Callas’s legal separation from her husband, and Callas’s affair with shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. The overarching theme of the film is Callas’s view of her identity, which she viewed as split between the ordinary “Maria,” who yearns to give up her career and become a housewife, and the celebrated “Callas,” the artist who accepts the events in her life as destiny.

Arias performed by Callas are interspersed throughout the film either as incidental music or presented in full, which are connected to Callas’s emotional state in the milestones of her life. For example, the highlight of the film is a colorized version of her famed “Casta Diva” from Norma, in which her plea to the Goddess for Peace extends to the public outrage caused by the Rome Cancellation. “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” from Carmen and “Vissi d’arte, Vissi d’amore” from Tosca similarly appear in full as reflections of her romance with Onassis as “Maria” amidst her dedication to singing as “Callas.” For these reasons, the portrayal of Callas’s life is insightful and thematically strong.

Unfortunately, the imposed restriction to material from Callas’s life stifles this narrative by creating a plodding pace and obscuring the film’s message. Due to the lack of overarching narration, the film presents Callas’s arias with little introduction, initially causing confusion as to why the film moves into song. This is also an ultimate halt in the narrative, since Callas’s performances are showstoppers. The film improves in its rhythm later, but the film has already wandered through enough events, robbing Callas of agency and ascribing them to the destiny in which Callas believed.

What truly makes the pacing issues in Maria by Callas detrimental is the choice of footage in the first half of the film. Interspersed between the chronological events is David Frost’s interview with Callas, which is letterboxed and in black and white. Since I was viewing the film in a typical cinema setting, the switching of resolution and colors was disorienting due to the size of the screen. The paparazzi footage, which was already uncomfortably invasive rather than intimate, became nauseating during the section detailing Callas’s legal separation from her husband. These effects exacerbated the pacing issues and made the film tiresome.

Maria by Callas certainly provides an intelligent look into the singer’s life with an interesting restriction. However, since almost the entire documentary is comprised of footage from over 40 years ago, much of which is already publicly available, it is reminiscent of a book report which merely quotes and summarizes the best parts; one wonders whether the merits of the organization of the report outweighs reading the book itself. In light of the presentation issues, I would rather stick to the source.