Review: Maria by Callas (2017)

Maria by Callas (2017)

Directed by: Tom Volf | 113 minutes | biography, documentary | Starring: Maria Callas, Aristotle Onassis, Jacqueline Kennedy, Omar Sharif, Luchino Visconti, Brigitte Bardot, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Elvira de Hidalgo, Catherine Deneuve, Grace Kelly, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, Joyce DiDonato, Fanny Ardant

Born in New York, Maria lived her short life in constant conflict, as can be seen in ‘Maria by Callas’. On the one hand she fully enjoyed her successful career as a world famous opera singer with almost 3 octaves range, but on the other hand she yearned for a stable and secluded existence with herself as the linchpin of the family. Cooking elaborately for her husband and their children was one of the dreams that never came true, but one that was so desired, especially given the soprano’s Greek roots.

She also missed a life with the exorbitantly wealthy Greek Aristotle Onassis when he suddenly marries Jacky (then the widow of JF Kennedy). Extra painful because Maria had to hear it from the newspaper and broke her heart after a close affair of nine years. Her health was from time to time very fragile and especially nerves played tricks on her. She collapsed. And that wasn’t the first time, but luckily she was forgiven this time by her French audience.

A few years earlier she was forced to stop the opera Norma because she was struggling with acute bronchitis; a circumstance that Callas could do nothing about. The Italian media reveled in the catastrophe and burned it to the ground. Especially since the highly respected composer Vincenzo Bellini himself was present that evening and that was unforgivable in the eyes of the proud Italians. A life without any moment of privacy and a constant stream of negative media attention was born, as was her image as a diva. Because singing no longer felt good for her body, Maria decided to further develop her acting talent in films.

At the time, Maria was still married to the elder Giovanni Battista, but they had not lived together for years. At the time, divorce was not possible under American law. To take back her freedom, she decided to renounce her US citizenship to take Greek. Because if you hadn’t married in church in Greece, you wouldn’t have been married. So Maria divorced on her own terms and a life with Onassis could still start, because “Aristo” regretted his marriage with Jacky and came to Paris with drooping legs to recapture Maria. Their life together was no longer a secret and it was nice, she writes in many long letters to her mentor and beloved confidant Elvira de Hidalgo. She died in Paris two years after her lover Aristotle. It is then 1977.

“What is a legend? People made me a legend, but I’m human.” With this she points out that she was not only “Callas”, but also just a human being of flesh and blood with her own vulnerability, sadness, hope, love and happiness. Maria Callas did not play in the opera. Her life was one….

Director and photographer Tom Volf gives full scope to Maria Callas’ breathtaking repertoire in the biographical documentary ‘Maria by Callas’. Not surprising because Tom Volf is a big fan of opera himself. Almost every aria is performed in full and in between he interweaves Maria’s life outside the stage. A voice-over by Joyce DiDonato, who tells on behalf of Maria, is particularly well chosen in terms of accent and intonation, because you forget that she cannot have recorded this, 40 years after her death.

Another golden opportunity is the digital coloring of old archive images. Suddenly the colorful life story of Maria Callas seems much closer to you. This technique recently led to a huge success in the BBC documentary ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ about the lives of servicemen during the First World War. However…why Volf didn’t color in all archive images, is the question. Unfortunately, this is at the expense of the continuity of the documentary.

Maria had a nickname: La Divina. The haughty diva you expect to see as a viewer stays in the background because during these 113 minutes she comes across as very preserved, distinguished and almost timid. No shameful and loud incidents full of unreasonableness, indifference and arrogance, but an endearing and at the same time fragile woman who tried with all her strength to keep herself together during a fleeting life in the spotlight…

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