Maria by Callas
(France, 113 min.)
Dir. Tom Volf
Programme: TIFF Docs (North American Premiere)
Every good diva deserves a doc portrait. Maria Callas receives a meticulously curated and assembled appreciation in this archival tapestry by director, photographer, and actor Tom Volf. Maria by Callas is an impressively assembled first feature and an obvious labour of love from a talent who has already penned three books about the star. The doc lets the late Greek-American soprano tell her story in her own words as Volf draws upon Callas’s diaries, interviews, and letters. Much in the fashion of Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s luminous Love, Cecil about photographer and costumer Cecil Beaton, Maria by Callas offers an engrossing portrait of a cultural icon.
The film charts Callas’s quick rise to fame after she fibbed her way into the Greek National Conservatoire by saying she was old enough to enrol. Volf doesn’t spend much time on Callas’s upbringing, nor on her education. It’s obvious that she was a born star. The records of performances and old interviews with her instructors make the case.
Even a moviegoer who approaches Maria by Callas with complete ignorance of opera is bound to appreciate the recordings that Volf finds. These immaculately and extravagantly staged performances as markers of old money high culture—very European, very upper class, or very “bougie” as the kids say these days. On the other hand, some viewers might find that Volf could have made the film even stronger if the edits were slightly less reverential of Callas’s performances. For an all-archival film, some of these performances could have been bridged with other material, rather than played out in full, to create a tighter portrait.
It’s in these performances, though, that Callas communicates a wealth of emotions and feelings with her golden vocals. Be patient and appreciate the full scope of these scenes. The power of her voice is sure to give Lady Gaga a run from her money at this year’s festival. Her stage presence and dramatic performance of the arias suggests that she, too, could have been a movie star had she lived longer. The film includes a fair segment on her lone screen credit in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea, plus ample stories of tabloid fodder to please movie buffs.
Callas lived in an age when paparazzi still chased opera stars and when sopranos made headlines for their steamy affairs. The doc takes special interest in Callas’s much-publicized on-and-off relationship with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. The big O treats Callas rather poorly, and while the tabloids might have had their fun in seeing the diva run back and forth to her unappreciative lover, the journals and reflections Volf includes put one inside Callas’s psychology. She loved him in spite of his faults, and she loved him strongly enough to fight for him before and during his marriage to Jackie Kennedy that scandalized (or deepened) their affair.
Volf finds extra juicy material in the interviews in which Callas responds to questions about her “tempestuous” personality. She rejects it flatly and explains the reasons behind concert cancellations that damaged her reputation. (She mostly cites illness and bronchitis—fair reasons for anyone her uses her voice as an instrument.) Volf finds in his wealth of archival material an interview with Callas and David Frost that serves as the through line for the film. Immordino Vreeland uses a similar tactic in the Beaton doc and the candid conversation shapes the film into loose acts as Callas reflects upon her life.
One witnesses the end of an era in the story of Maria Callas. Opera simply isn’t the affair that it used to be as generations and tastes change. Go for the music, but the most captivating words are the ones Callas speaks—not the ones she sings.
Maria by Callas screens:
-Monday, Sept. 10 at TIFF Lightbox at 6:45 PM
-Thursday, Sept. 13 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 9:15 PM