Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 New York Film Festival.
Another day, another fawning documentary about a famous musician. But Tom Volf’s “Maria by Callas” — an obsessive tribute to (and sympathetic examination of) the late opera legend Maria Callas — is of a somewhat different breed than the usual sort. Entirely composed of archival newsreel footage, performance recordings, and rare interview excerpts from when the great “diva” sat down with journalist David Frost in 1970, the film unfolds like a second-hand sketch of a phantom who continues to haunt its director.
Volf highlights Callas’ sentiment that her memoirs “are in the music [she] interprets, the only language [she] really knows,” and he respects that feeling to a fault. This was a woman who was hounded by reporters all over the world, and defined by her relationship with the press; here, she finally gets a chance to speak in her own words. And yet, it would seem as though she only has one thing to say to us: Maria Callas was unknowable, perhaps even to herself.
While devotees of La Divina will certainly enjoy spending two hours sifting through the mystery she left behind, neophytes may find themselves on the outside looking in. Volf’s approach is as dense as his subject, and often as difficult as she was accused of being. Callas newcomers may find themselves so far behind the ball that it’s impossible for them to entertain the idea that the singer might have been knowable in the first place.
Part of the problem is that Volf loves his subject very much; more — or at least more palpably — than the average documentary filmmaker (this is only his first feature, but he’s working on his third Callas book). And yet, it’s because of his love and expertise that he’s so eager to dig a bit deeper and ask different, more probing questions of the singer than the kind that tends to preoccupy music documentaries. Liberated by his refusal to reiterate the simple details of Callas’ life, as well as his complete disinterest in using talking heads to provide color and context, Volf is free to address more abstract concerns: Was Callas happy? Did that level of fame require her to forfeit the right to be happy? Is it possible that one woman was able to have such great control over her voice, and so little control over her narrative?
From the beginning, Volf is compelled by Callas’ agency, or lack thereof. The first bits of interview footage he uses find the singer reflecting that her mother all but forced her onto the stage. “Destiny forced me into this career,” Callas says through seemingly gritted teeth, “and I couldn’t get out of it. Destiny is destiny.” She says that it was “her life as a woman to be a wife and a mother,” but even that claim seems to lack conviction. Maybe that’s because of the patriarchal language she uses, and how our view of the past will always be clouded by the present; maybe her public image has been so poisoned by the press (who cast her as a tempermental floozy who cared only for herself) that even her most sincere confessions sound like compromises.
Volf is desperate to let the diva have her say, and so he devotes long stretches of the film to her performances. Her voice and range is expressive even in the most degraded concert footage, but the scattered newsreel stuff that Volf often uses for visual accompaniment only distracts from the matter at hand, and makes it that much harder for modern audiences to appreciate Callas’ appeal. At times, “Maria by Callas” feels like the work of an overzealous fan trying to show his friends the thing he loves so much.
For viewers who are confronted by a greater enthusiasm gap, it’s the snippets of Callas’ everyday life that prove most engaging. Callas was a celebrity from the era of “La Dolce Vita,” when a rabid press would great people like her on the tarmac at the airport, and visiting luminaries would descend the plane’s stairs with flowers in their arms. It was a time when stars were made to serve as beacons of light for the rest of the world, and workaday people had to look up to see them. “I feel elevated above everything,” Callas says. “It’s my way of giving the public an illusion of something better.” Perhaps that’s why it was such a scandal when, sick with bronchitis, she cancelled a glitzy 1958 Rome Opera House performance after the first act. Volf’s unwillingness to fill us in on the details makes it hard to say anything for sure, which speaks to the core idea of the film, but also reflects how it relies on artificial means of keeping Callas at a distance.
More helpful is the b-roll from the set of the only movie that Callas ever made: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Medea.” Her friendship with the Italian firebrand provides the film its only lasting glimpse of Callas’ social life, and a measure of perspective that Volf often struggles to find. When a reporter asks Callas about the experience, she replies that “It’s been very real every minute of the day.” Was her existence so detached and dehumanizing that she could only feel at home inside a completely artificial world?
Who’s to say? On the subject of the split between her private and public selves, Callas tells Frost that “there are two people in me… I like to think they both go together. My own self has been there every second. I’ve done nothing falsely. If one really tries to listen to me seriously one will find all of myself in there.” Volf’s film leaves no doubt that all of herself is in there, but “Maria by Callas” is stuck between the desire to reveal its subject, and the understanding that even the most honest documentary would dilute the truth. As the singer once said: “It’s a very terrible thing to be Maria Callas, because it’s a question of trying to understand something you can never really understand.”
The sincerity of Volf’s attempt is hard to square with the futility of his actions, as it was always going to be. And so the film resolves as a passionate tribute to a woman who commanded the world’s attention, but was never afforded its decency. It’s a curtain call for Callas, and a chance for the great singer to be heard again.
Sony Pictures Classics will release “Maria by Callas” in theaters on Friday, November 2.