'Maria by Callas': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Keeping the flame burning for the last century's greatest diva.

Tom Volf's documentary about the opera star Maria Callas mixes various forms of footage and audio recording to offer an obsessive's portrait.

The diva of all divas gets a giant close-up in Maria by Callas, a captivating yet distinctly odd hybrid that mixes and matches documentary, TV, home movie and all manner of other footage with a vast array of audio recordings, along with more coverage of Callas getting off airplanes than one could have imagined existed. Clearly made by a Callas obsessive, he being French photographer Tom Volf, who is about to publish his third book about the singer, this is an unusual film, one that will be devoured by those savoring all things Callas, but might be pecked at by purists who have their own ideas about her and may question some of the filmmaker's choices.

It helps Volf's cause considerably that Callas, who was born to Greek parents in New York in 1923 but returned to the mother country before World War II and received her early training there, rose to prominence during the age of newsreels, paparazzi, television and privately owned 16mm cameras. There is endless footage of her comings and goings — to openings, on paramour Aristotle Onassis' yacht and giving interviews, by far the most notable of which is a black-and-white TV sit-down with David Frost long thought lost but a copy of which turned up in the private collection of the singer's butler.

The filmmaker has also usefully enlisted contemporary opera singer Joyce DiDonato to read excerpts from Callas' journals, which provides hitherto unavailable access to the singer's thoughts and feelings about the events of her life.

Then there is matter of audiovisual testaments to Callas' stage triumphs. Cameras were not ordinarily permitted in grand opera houses, nor were performances 60 or 70 years ago often recorded, leaving us with far less top-quality evidence of celebrated opera performances and mid-century singers than we’d like.

In Maria by Callas, there is substantial visual material in which we see the star singing. A good deal of it is real, with sound (often not so hot) and image matching. But some of it would appear to be silent film footage taken by unknown parties to which separate audio recordings have been synced up as well as technology will allow, which these days is quite good.

In other words, we don't always know exactly what we’re watching or what we're listening to, which will a problem for some (longtime opera buffs, purists, professionals, students) and not for others (the casually interested).

Too often as well, the documentary decides what to concentrate upon in Callas' life based on whether there is visual material to back it up. Therefore, Callas' first husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, is scarcely seen or mentioned, even though he was responsible for securing her Italian career in the 1950s, while Onassis, whom the singer never married, is all over the place. Also notable by its absence is any talk or visual evidence of the singer's dramatic weight loss in the early 1950s, when she went from 200 pounds down to about 120, prompting much discussion of how this affected her voice.

What is gratifying about the film is Volf's obvious love for and devotion to Callas, as well as his completist's urge to track down and include every scrap of footage at all relevant to telling her story and documenting her greatness. The subject's refinement and a certain hauteur come through, to be sure, but so do degrees of modesty and self-deprecation, notably after she had been jilted by Onassis in favor of Jackie Kennedy (going unmentioned is how, after a while, the Greek tycoon began seeing the singer again on the sly).

In the end, however, what counts is the singing and the filmmaker's obvious cause, which is to make sure the world doesn't forget who the most celebrated soprano of the 20th century was and why. At the very least, it will send many viewers back to the recordings, some of them superior to the renditions heard here, with a more vivid picture of the extraordinary woman who made them.

Opens: Fall 2018
Distributor: Sony Classics Pictures

Production companies: Petit Dragon, Elephant Doc
With: Joyce DiDonato
Director: Tom Volf
Writer: Tom Volf
Producers: Emma Lepers, Gael Leiblang, Tom Volf, Emmanuel Chain, Thierry Bizot
Editor: Janice Jones
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs)

113 minutes