(2017) Documentary (Sony Classics) Maria Callas, Fanny Ardant, David Frost, Edward R. Murrow, Barbara Walters, Elvira de Hidalgo, Joyce DiDonato, Aristotle Onassis, Omar Sharif, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Rudolf Bing, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, Bernard Gavoty, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean Cocteau, Brigitte Bardot, Vittorio De Sica, Catherine Deneuve, Grace Kelly. Directed by Tom Volf
Maria Callas’ star has faded. Even to people my own age she’s just a name that may or may not be familiar and to those younger than myself, not even that. Those who remember her may remember her as the epitome of the operatic diva, a woman whose talent made her a household name and whose lifestyle made her a legend.
When diva behavior is caricatured with furs, an adoring sycophantic entourage and small dogs, they are really discussing Callas who developed the persona for real. However, she was more than just a caricature and Volf uses interview footage – much of it unseen since it first aired – and the diva’s own words through letters and an unpublished autobiography to paint a portrait of the artist.
Born in New York to Greek immigrants, she was sent (unwillingly) to Athens to study operatic singing and after the war became a rising star, a star that blazed in the 1950s and early 1960s. She famously had a long-term affair with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis who would then in a shocking turn of events (at least to Callas) marry the widow of the former U.S. President, Jacqueline Kennedy. The betrayal devastated her, although she apparently continued a romantic relationship with him after he married Jackie.
Her life was a lonely one despite the wealth and fame; she had a love-hate relationship with the press and with her relationship with Onassis a defining moment for her, she would not marry again (she did marry an Italian impresario but the marriage ended when she felt he exerted too much influence over her career). That she was bitter is obvious through her words here.
This is an intimate look at an artist who has largely been forgotten, which is the nature of fame; it is indeed fleeting. How many famous people who dominate the headlines now be remembered in 50 to 70 years? For many, the answer will be not at all.
The movie glosses over a lot of the less pleasant aspects of her life, and tends to be unwilling to identify various people talking to and about Callas, so you may find yourself having to Google images of some of these folks. The filmmaker presents Callas as a woman who was largely imprisoned by her fame and gave more to her art and to her lover than she received back from either, a viewpoint that I think is a bit condescending. From everything I’ve been able to find out about the woman, she was very much in control of her life and her career; she was strong-willed and temperamental to the point that people tended to walk on eggshells around her.
I don’t think this is a complete view of the opera star, although watching her rapturous expression as she is singing an aria may well tell you everything you need to know about her. The film also tends to gloss over some of her less admirable qualities, as well as to the very obvious weight loss which may have contributed to the vocal issues that plagued her later on in her career, which only the opera fan may notice from her performances here. Still, this is an excellent introduction to her work and her life and maybe even to her personality as well.
REASONS TO SEE: A must for opera fans and history buffs. Some wonderful archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: Skips over the less wonderful aspects of her life.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some vague sexual references, mild profanity and mild adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film by Volf.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Sling TV, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Vie en Rose
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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