Film Review: In “Maria by Callas,” the Diva Shines

Film poster: “Maria by Callas”

Maria by Callas (Tom Volf, 2017) 3½ out of 4 stars.

A documentary both elliptical and precisely structured, weaving in and out of broad temporal montages and detailed historical sequences, Maria by Callas tells the story of its subject with deep love and respect, always allowing Maria Callas (1923-1977), herself, the final word. That’s not to say that there are no other participants in the movie, but the narrative is driven by the famous opera diva’s own thoughts, public and private, about her life and place in the world. With excerpts from her many interviews, as well as diaries and memoirs, the movie is a monumental paean to her complicated glory.

This is no hagiography, however, nor would “La Callas” (as he was often called) have wanted one. She emerges from the screen a vital being, but hardly flawless (who is?), and self-aware enough to recognize that fact. Still, given the rarified circles in which she ran once achieving celebrity status, the movie does become, halfway through, a bit too much of a chronicle of the lives of the rich and famous. It’s good that we first meet the future star as the child of hard-working Greek immigrants in New York City, in order to better appreciate the hard labor behind her meteoric rise and the wealth and attention it brought.

La Callas ©Sony Pictures Classics

I am no opera aficionado, though I enjoy me a good aria (“O mio babbino caro,” anyone?), yet much of Maria by Callas is deeply compelling, even to the uninitiated. Unless, that is, one does not appreciate beautiful music, since so much of the story revolves around her magnetic voice, a glorious instrument of great expressive power. It’s not perfect in tone (at least not to my ear): there’s an edge that trills in the higher range. It is this very quality that makes it unique, however. Callas sang from the heart, with every line bursting with meaning.

Director Tom Volf, making his debut, has assembled a treasure trove of archival material – indeed, the entire film is told without newly photographed footage – plunging us headfirst into mid-20th-century history. We follow Callas as she leaves New York to train in Greece, where she is trapped during World War II, then as she bursts on the opera scene and surges up the ranks of sought-after singers. After reaching the top of her profession, she then, through a series of cancelled concerts and one scandalous love affair, attracted as much criticism as acclaim, though always a household name. And so it went to the end of her days. She was sui generis, and this movie is a worthy testament to her legacy as an artist and human being.

Aristotle Onassis with longtime lover Maria Callas ©Sony Pictures Classics

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic here at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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