Greetings from the 2019 Glasgow Film Festival, my friends! I have ventured across the motherland to the West Coast for Scotland’s biggest film festival in its biggest city. Glasgow’s got everything: Great music, great art, a Taco Bell… and now I’m here to take in its cinematic sights. My first stop: The world of opera.
Even people who don’t know the slightest thing about opera know who Maria Callas is. The legendary soprano’s fame transcended the medium she made her name in, in part helped by her colourful private life and depictions in a plethora of films, series, and plays. She was the ultimate diva, with all the highs and lows that often treacherous label suggests.
Maria by Callas is, as the title suggests, a documentary about Callas in her own words. As told through diary entries, T.V. interviews, letters to friends, and news footage, the film is, if nothing else, thorough. The sheer amount of material gathered from Callas’s decades in the spotlight offers both a professional and candid exploration of her life. Director Tom Volf is clearly a Callas mega fan and has constructed the documentary to be an adoring tribute to its subject. So far, so typical for music documentaries, surely? This one, however, is more interested in letting the central icon define herself rather than having its director paint a glowing piece of fan art. As Callas herself says, she wrote her memoirs through her work and expressed her innermost torment through the performances that became the hottest tickets in town.
It’s an interesting angle to take, and it leads to an awful lot of uninterrupted opera footage. Then again, when the singer is this good, surely it deserves our unbroken focus? Even in the most worn-out and degraded of reels, Callas’s voice and magnetic on-stage presence remain potent. For opera novices or those of us who only hear such music on car adverts, it’s a thrilling opportunity to see what all the fuss is about, and even the most uninformed of us can embrace the almost primal appeal of the medium performed by one of its best. However, it doesn’t offer us much of Callas’s own life, which is a problem given that the entire thesis of the project is that the work speaks for itself.
The documentary is on stronger ground when it shows the contrast between Callas’s private life and the intensely public nature of her professional one. Being an opera megastar working in Italy at a time when the paparazzi were the emerging dominant predators of the celebrity ecosystem. It is rare to see Callas not surrounded by cameras and the shouting men armed with them, and the obvious pressures of this are evident in every smile through gritted teeth and evasion of increasingly personal questions. In one of the film’s most striking moments, one of these paparazzi packs swarm around Callas as she gets off a plane (something we see her do a lot in this film as she travels the world to perform), and the seemingly endless number of cameras gives a near 360-degree coverage of Callas trying to leave.
The image is striking but Callas seldom says much beyond the expected platitudes. The objective of having her reclaim her story hits best when she calls out the unfairness of her diva label and in her often uncomfortably candid letters regarding the love of her life, Aristotle Onassis. The boundlessness of her passions for a man who really never deserved her are sharply contrasted with footage of the shipping magnate marrying Jackie Kennedy, an incident Callas claims she had no idea was happening until the press reported on it. The sadness of this moment is all the more painful given how much of her many interviews Callas gave focused on her desire to settle down, have a family, and dedicate herself to her husband. This is the most we get from Callas in terms of her real life story.
One of the toughest aspects of making a documentary about a so-called genius is in expressing how said person was such a prodigy without labouring the point or leaving the unknowledgeable viewers in the dust. Maria by Callas is not necessarily a fulfilling piece of work on those terms. Yes, her incredible voice speaks for itself, but as an opera novice, I certainly would have appreciated a breakdown of why her voice was considered so unique and special. The same goes for the roles she sang and what made them especially difficult or famous. This is a film that assumes you know the details of all the moments it’s leaving out. That or it doesn’t want to ruin the pretty illusion by including the pricklier details. It seems reasonable that Callas suffered unfairly from the ‘diva’ label and the misogyny that powers it, but you also can’t escape the feeling that Volf is omitting some information that would be important for the viewer to know. For example, Callas considers a turning moment in her career to be the furor that erupted when she cancelled a gala performance of Norma after the first act due to illness. We see footage of the evening and the cancellation but not of the performance, nor do we get any further context for what this meant for her long-term reputation. It is what it is, and what it is for Volf is mostly fanboy dedication, albeit very well done. In one scene, we see the opera devotees who cue up outside the Met for Callas’s glorious return to New York, and the eager men awaiting her performance after days of sleeping on the streets for a chance to buy tickets are clearly Vof’s kind of guys.
Fortunately, not even the director’s own adoration can overshadow Callas herself. Always filmed in full glamour gear, with that flick of eyeliner and a wardrobe to kill for, Callas comes across as warm, thoughtful, self-aware and melancholy. Whatever the rest of the documentary tries to do or the flourishes it tries to adds, what matters is that Maria By Callas does indeed let her speak for herself. Although, as interesting as the documentary is, it might be worth watching with Wikipedia on standby if Opera is as foreign to you as the various languages she speaks.
Header Image Source: Sony Pictures Classics