Movie Review: Maria by Callas

The Soprano: Inside Diva

As an opera reviewer who doesn’t know much about the legendary Maria Callas I greatly enjoyed Tom Volf’s extremely informative documentary Maria By Callas. The film consists entirely of archival footage, clips of the soprano on TV talk shows and in the news, performance/concert vignettes, home movies and sound recordings. I don’t believe there’s a single solitary shot of original material per se by Volf but he has done a masterful job assembling this compilation film that is worthy of the genre’s creator, Soviet director/editor Esther Shub.

(For some reason, from time to time some of the footage is glimpsed as if we are looking at the frame of a motion picture – which may want us to reflect on the fact that we are watching films of Callas? Who knows?)

What makes Volf’s film compelling is that he imposes a point of view on these disparate kinetic chronicles so that instead of appearing to be disjointed they tell a consist, unitary story held together by his entranced, obsessed vision of the singer/actress. In addition to merely documenting Callas’ often turbulent life Volf takes a stab at getting inside of the psyche of one of opera’s most enigmatic divas. (As opposed to Peter Bogdanovich, whose nonfiction The Great Buster about comedian/filmmaker Buster Keaton chronicles his career and life but never reveals what made him tick.)

I suppose Volf’s title, Maria By Callas, suggests the split and difference between the public performer and the private individual, trying to preserve her sanity, sense of self and personal well-being, while perpetually living in the glare of the public eye. “La Divina”, as her legions of fans dubbed her, tried to balance her public persona with her inner self, and the fact that she died at only age 53 in 1977 suggests that she wasn’t very successful at attaining this equilibrium or at creating her authentic “self.”

Volf comes off as a bit of a fanboy and his doc explores Maria’s private life – which, admittedly, was often highly publicized. In particular, there’s lots of stuff about Callas’ long term affair with tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Callas is shocked when she later learns that the Greek shipping magnate has dumped her to marry Jacqueline Kennedy, which she learned by reading about their relationship in the newspapers. Oh Jackie O.!

I learned a lot about Callas, such as the fact that like me, this female of Greek origins was actually born in Queens, New York. I had always assumed she was born in Greece – who knew she was a fellow New Yawker? A black and white TV interview between Callas and David Frost recurs throughout the doc. And I was especially interested in candid shots of Callas on the set of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 movie Medea, based on the Greek classic.

But most of all, what’s best about this 113 minute multi-lingual documentary (sometimes with English subtitles) is Volf’s sincere efforts to get under La Divina’s skin – and in the process proving that while “Callas” may have been godlike, Maria was all too human. To sound like a Grecian cinematic soothsayer, this auspicious directorial debut by Volf portends a motion picture career is in his future.

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