Documentary Film Reviews

Film Review: Maria By Callas

The Diva Callous

French professional photographer Tom Volf, in his documentary debut, falls for the temptation of “letting the subject tell the story” (hence the title of the film). The task is easier to imagine than it is to accomplish, and by his unwavering devotion to the subject’s perspective, he loses everyone else’s. We are left with a sort of myopia that, contrary to the director’s intention, puts the object of his obvious affection in a harsh, incessant light.

For one, Maria by Callas betrays the soprano’s intermittent loathing of her career as an opera singer. Asked in an early interview about her motivation, she immediately goes to “destiny,” adding that she “would have gladly given it up at any time.” She confesses that she knew little else but singing from the age of 13 to 40. So, for the first two acts, we see Callas, not as an artist visited by muses, but as a singing laborer who was put to work by “destiny”—a euphemism for her mother.

From a tender young age, it was impressed upon Callas (mostly by her mother) that what she had that was special, and that she could offer the world, was her voice. In a fairy tale, that might lead to only good things. In real life, it says, “Never mind your heart. Never mind your mind. Develop your vocal cords.” This is the great tragedy hidden within this film, and it’s a part of the story that Volf seems unaware of, or perhaps prefers to ignore.

Yet, it ties into the most rewarding sequences—the ones later in the documentary and later in Callas’ career—where she exudes an internal light and a glint finally appears in her eyes. Why the change? Though Volf might not like to acknowledge it, her comfort in her own skin comes when she has broken free from singing (and become free of her close friend and sometimes lover, Aristotle Onassis).

We focus on these internal struggles, because of the choices Volf made. His obsession with the diva isn’t the main problem. It’s that, for at least the first hour, he expects—demands—that you share his fascination. This he indicates through clip after clip (vintage footage) of Callas doing nothing but exiting cars and smiling coyly at the camera. It feels like dozens of times, over and over. There can be no other message: “Isn’t she amazing!?”

If the chanteuse seems self-absorbed, part of the fault lies with the filmmaker. Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words is the full title, and Volf is unrelenting about it. The result might be different if his subject were a fantastic storyteller, but he should know that she’s not nearly that. It couldn’t be clearer that his decisions were clouded by his infatuation.

By my estimate, ten minutes of the two-hour runtime is enjoyable and/or enlightening. Callas mentions her fondness for Romantic-period composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), and a vintage clip of her singing one of his arias shows her really giving herself to the music. Musically, it’s her finest moment in the film.

It happens that I am a fan of opera, and I have never been drawn to Maria Callas’ voice. This documentary did shed some light for me on why that is. As I mentioned earlier, she was thrust into a singing career while missing some of the nurturing of a healthy childhood. Besides the resulting, underlying resentment within her, she sounds overprotective of her heart.

Her voice’s center of gravity seems located above her chest, resulting in a throaty quality. Most often, her emphasis and phrasing sound like they come from her neck upward. It’s a brusque, dry tone that matches her predominant moods and personality traits as depicted here.

But I don’t want to give the impression that Maria by Callas is a documentary steeped in music. Fans of opera or instrumental classical music won’t find much to delight over. If anything the poor-quality featured recordings underscore the jarring qualities of her voice. The bulk of what Volf presents feels like (looks like, sounds like) tabloid fodder. To enjoy this movie, you have to buy into the cult of celebrity, with all the silly beefs, breakups, makeups, rumors, “styles,” “fabulous” comebacks, Kennedys, Onassises, blah, blah, blah.

Making matters worse, when the filmmaker finally gets around to music, he chooses to furnish subtitles with the footage of Callas performing leading roles. The verbiage, verging on banal as it is in most operas, adds nothing but annoying distraction. If, in regular conversation, words communicate only 10 percent of the message, how much information can they possibly provide on top of the action on stage, the sets, the singing, and the full orchestra playing? “The love lasted only one day. The love lasted only one day. Love!” Only the type of person who would whine, “I can’t understand what they’re saying” could be pleased.

Nor does Volf deal particularly well with the issue of enlarging images from original Super 8 film. I understand going for a gritty or unfinished look, but do we really need to see the word “Kodak” zip across the screen 50 times and sprocket holes all over the place? It’s not even a novel style, really.

Finally, another unintended consequence of the “in her own words” approach when the subject died in 1977: If you’re going to make a documentary, now you’ve locked yourself into archival footage only. Volf adds in a (mostly unconvincing) narrator to read from Callas’ letters, diaries, and the like. This style isn’t inherently bad. Here, though, it feels like you’re stuck in a superfan’s musty attic, and you know that he’s not letting you out until he shows you every last photograph and yellowed press clipping related to his obsession. It’s stuffy and claustrophobic. There’s concern about mold spores and air quality. Is it getting really warm in here? I’m sweating. And the nostalgia’s making my head spin.

2 of 5 stars