If you head to a screening of “Maria by Callas” expecting to see opera star Maria Callas without her makeup on, this is not the documentary for you. In fact, you will never see the famed diva without her eyes thickly lined, her hair well-sprayed and her look otherwise arranged to please the public eye.
Tom Volf’s (“Les aristos”) documentary chronicling to aspects of the life but primarily the career of legendary operatic talent Maria Callas immediately informs its viewers that while this film may be their retelling of Callas’s story, it is on her terms. It open with a disclaimer, declaring that all source material is drawn from Callas’s memoirs, letters, interviews and other primary sources. In other words, they position themselves as pseudo-ghostwriters of Callas’s autobiography. While this tactic was likely elected out of respect for Callas and out of a desire to tell her story in the most respectful way possible, the filmmakers’ surrender of the story to attempted posthumous narration — Callas died in 1977 — ends up constricting how much of Callas we see, at times to the point where Callas seems to be no more than the sum of her performances.
By promising to tell Callas’s stories on her terms, the filmmakers boxed themselves in. Admittedly, some of the resources in that box helped create a holistic portrait of Callas. Several of the most emotionally charged sequences of the documentary are those set to Joyce DiDonato’s (“Cendrillon”) vocal performances of Callas’s letters to friends and mentors, in the high and low points of her career, before and after relationships that affected both Callas’s public and private lives.
On the one hand, their other go-to resources became repetitive and tedious: For instance, footage of Callas’s performances, while rhapsodic and demonstrative of her talent, appear largely unedited and consume so much of the runtime that the film veers away from biography and toward functioning as a mere career profile. A third prominent resource — footage of Callas’s encounters with the press, from fending off the paparazzi to engaging in conversation with individual journalists for agreed-upon interviews — had mixed results.
On the other hand, spotlighting Callas’s exchanges with the press sheds light on the negotiations of identity that everyone faces but which public figures undertake to a more dramatic extent. However, as this arena for negotiating identity becomes increasingly dominant, the absence of other, equally relevant explorations of identity through Callas’s life (e.g. Callas’s identity as a Greek-American, as a first-generation American and as a woman, to name a few) becomes increasingly questionable.
Ironically, despite the filmmakers’ efforts to supplement the media’s image of Callas with Callas’s self-definition, they, too, fall for the temptations of sensationalism as soon as Aristotle Onassis arrives on scene. Once Onassis arrives with his wealth, fame and gossip-worthy baggage (e.g. he’s the man who married First Lady Jackie Kennedy after she was widowed), the film shifts gears, hastily writing off Callas’s first marriage, of which we never hear much more than her increased dissatisfaction with it after she met Onassis, in order to focus on the duo’s scandalous relationship.
Onassis’s role in the film speaks to another issue with the filmmakers’ laissez-faire approach to telling Callas’s story. While everyone deserves control over their own story, in reality, our lives are largely co-authored — by friends, by family, by enemies, by people we’ve known all our lives and people we will never meet. If they weren’t, our lives would be terribly lonely and ourselves terribly stagnant without external incentive for growth. It is therefore valuable not only to define oneself but also to try to see oneself through the eyes of others. Viewers will be reminded of the importance of including multiple perspectives every time they have a brief taste of someone else’s attitude toward Callas — for instance, one of the most endearing scenes in the film captures a devoted fans’ sentiments about Callas — and will crave to hear others like Onassis weigh in.
There are many ways to retell someone else’s story respectfully — autobiography isn’t foolproof. If only the makers of “Maria by Callas” believed that, we might have gotten a more holistic portrait of the powerful woman at the center of the film.