The intent of a documentary is often more than merely to inform about a subject, but to immerse the audience deep into the world of the subject to create empathy, along with understanding. The typical approach is one in which a narrative is created around the subject, tracking as the focus sets about accomplishing something. With Saving Brinton, audiences observed as Michael Zahs sought to preserve the cinematic works of Iowan entertainers, the Brintons. In Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, the audience is given a lesson in Black history’s close ties to cinema from historians, filmmakers, and actors. Who Will Write Our History explored the creation of a secret archive within the Warshaw Ghetto using a combination of historian interviews, performative readings of letters from individuals with the archive, and dramatic recreations of events. Of the possible approaches to take, first-time director Tom Volf devised something unarguably unique in the technical crafting of Maria by Callas by using only Maria’s perspective through the use of private letters, interviews, archived footage, and more to tell the story of her two identities – Maria the person and Callas the artist.
Modern audiences are less likely to be familiar with Maria’s work since her career spanned from the early ‘50s to the mid-’70s. During that time, however, she was a global name, able to draw crowds filled with both plebeians and dignitaries, all equally passionate about being present for a Maria’s performance. Press footage used by Volf shows how incredibly steadfast Maria’s fans were. Many camped out overnight in New York during the winter of 1965 as the Metropolitan Opera promised a return by Maria after a seven-year hiatus from performing there. General footage and specific interviews with talent like Barbara Walters and David Frost showed that the press adored her as much as her fans. Why the press loved her, though is vague as it’s not clear whether their appreciation was for her talent or how her reputation created scintillating behind-the-scenes stories. One thing is for certain, Maria by Callas is a passion-project for Volf and it shows in every frame. The meticulous manner in which every family photo, home video, professional performance, and press interview is restored to look near-new is evident in every moment of the documentary. For example, Volf constructs a loose format for the documentary by utilizing her 1970 interview with David Frost as bookends and connectives. This conscientious structure creates poignancy where it might otherwise be vacant as each brief interlude from the interview helps to establish, retread, or finalize a view Maria holds. Considering the low quality of the original broadcast compared to today’s standards, as well as the impact of time, the images presented clearly underwent significant care for inclusion in Maria by Callas. Not only this, but it’s clear this painstaking effort to present the best possible version of Maria’s public appearances is designed to ensure a sympathetic portrait of Maria. This creates an opportunity for audiences new and old to bask in her incredible talent while obtaining a peek behind the curtain.
Herein lies the trouble at the heart of Maria by Callas. Since the story is entirely told from her words, using only materials which present her perspective, the whole of the film lacks weight or insight. Certainly, we have her words to go by, but there’s so much to be assumed by inference that what might be an insightful journey into the mind of a global phenom is absolutely left to speculation. While that might satisfy the fans who are already well-versed in her history, it’s absolutely dissatisfying for general audiences as the subject of the documentary remains an elusive mystery. On the one hand, through her own words, Maria suggests that she’d give up her career in a heartbeat if offered her the chance to become a parent. It’s a role she viewed as far more challenging than globe-trotting and one she seemed to idealize. In these moments, and others like them, the walls seem to break down around Maria, a moment of truth billowing through a crack her in emotional armor. However, it’s strenuous to reconcile the performer from the person because she’s a consummate professional, used to being all smiles and speaking in the positive no matter the situation. This is, of course, something which Volf puts front-and-center at the start when Frost asks Maria about her two sides: the artist and the person. The thing is, while Maria has an answer to this question, Volf does not. She believes herself to be Maria: a normal person and Callas: the performer for whom every audience must be treated as unique. Undoubtedly, Maria was under incredible pressure in all facets of her life due to her celebrity. She believed that every performance must be unique, created in the moment, and also that, if not for her husband’s drive for her to keep performing, she might have stopped to enjoy the pleasures her work earned. Yet, from these interviews and letters, she appears able to conflate the two ideas of herself. Through the whole of Maria, however, Volf does not. Perhaps it’s because the bulk of the story focuses on her professional career, using various songs deemed significant to her as markers for moments, but there’s hardly a focus on who she was outside the theater. Certainly we’re given a glimpse of what might be for her once some focus is given to a Greek law making her marriage void, an act she views as granting her freedom for the first time, as well as some tiny exploration into her life with close friend, Aristole Onassis. This leaves the audience a touch untethered, riding along as story after story, performance after performance, interview after interview is placed before them, begging the questions: what does it all mean? Who is this documentary for?
Compounding matters are the transitions in time without context. In one moment, Maria is discussing the significance of her training, which naturally leads to an interview with her instructor from the Athens Conservatoire. These are instinctual links serving to progress the audience’s deeper understanding of Maria’s background. However, then Maria jumps to a performance of Trieste in 1953, La Veste in 1954, and Norma in 1955 with the only visible connection being Maria herself. Are these her early performances? Are these the first things she participated in professionally after leaving the Conservatoire? Without context, they are merely brilliant performances taken from an impressive career. The thing is, these performances make up the bulk of the documentary. They do a marvelous job of demonstrating Maria’s undeniable talent, yet do little in conveying significance to her career, their inherent connection to her history, or who she is as a person. Even later in the documentary, when she begins to discuss her relationship with Onassis, a man for whom she cared deeply, there remains an obvious sense of guardedness in her language, even in the private letters sent to friends. If the purpose of Maria is to explore both sides of identity, the inability to crack the veneer of her celebrity inhibits the audience’s connection.
Maria Callas is a one-of-a-kind talent whose career took her across the globe and had her performing in great music halls, acting in prestigious operas, and almost constantly in the limelight. While director Tom Volf intends to offer audiences a rare look at the performer, the film as a whole seems catered to audiences already familiar with Maria Callas. Even though it delves not just into her twenty-plus-year career and her private life, it offers little background on locations, social context, or significance. If not for a few throwaway lines from an interview which mentions a Greek law being passed, the audience would have no idea why it mattered so much to Maria and her future. Maria by Callas almost insists that the audience already be aware of her esteemed catalog of works so that when she sings them beautifully and entrancingly, the audience is moved by not just the glorious performances, but also by what it means to Maria. Without that information and without that context, however, everything is just words, leaving the audience to scramble for any foothold they can find to stay locked in in a documentary aiming to create new fans and bolster old ones.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital February 12th, 2019.
No special features available at the time of review.
Exclusive Blu-ray bonus feature – “Quest”
Exclusive Blu-ray bonus feature – “Her Own Story”
Final Score: 3 out of 5.