Review: Maria by Callas (2017)


Director: Tom Volf | 113 minutes | biography, documentary | Featuring: 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

New York-born 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-renowned opera singer with nearly 3 octaves of range, but on the other, she longed for a stable and secluded life with herself as the hub of the family. Elaborate cooking for her husband and their children was one of the dreams that never came true, but one that was so desirable, especially given the Greek roots of this soprano.

A life with the exorbitantly rich Greek Aristotle Onassis also passed her nose when he suddenly marries Jacky (then the widow of J.F. Kennedy). Extra painful because Maria had to find out from the newspaper and made her heart break after a deep affair of nine years. Her health was very fragile from time to time and nerves in particular played tricks on her. She collapsed. And that was not the first time, but fortunately she was forgiven by her French audience this time.

A few years earlier she was forced to stop the opera Norma, because she was struggling with acute bronchitis; a circumstance that Callas could not help. The Italian media feasted on the catastrophe and burned her to the ground. Certainly because the highly respected composer Vincenzo Bellini himself was present that evening and that was inexcusable 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 had not lived together for years. At the time, divorce was not possible under American law. To take back her freedom, she decided to relinquish her US citizenship to adopt Greek. Because if you weren’t married for church in Greece, you wouldn’t be married. Thus Maria divorced on her own terms and a life with Onassis could still start, because “Aristo” regretted his marriage to Jacky and came to Paris with hanging 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. In Paris she dies two years after her beloved Aristotle. It will be 1977.

“What is a legend? People made me a legend, but I am 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, sorrow, hope, love and happiness. Maria Callas did not play in the opera. Her life was one….

Director and photographer Tom Volf gives full space to Maria Callas’ breathtaking repertoire in the biographical documentary “Maria by Callas”. Not surprising because Tom Volf himself is a big fan of opera. Almost every aria is performed in full and in between he interweaves Mary’s life outside the stage. A voice-over by Joyce DiDonato who narrates on behalf of Maria is particularly well-chosen in terms of accent and intonation, because you forget that she could not have spoken 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 to be much closer to you. This technique recently led to a huge success in BBC documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” about the lives of soldiers during the First World War. However, the question is why Volf did not color all archive footage. This is unfortunately at the expense of the continuity of the documentary.

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

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