This adoring documentary captures the life, art – and, above all, spine-tingling talents – of a diva extraordinaire revered by opera devotees and ripe for discovery by everyone who’s not.
Screened as part of NZIFF 2019
The legendary opera singer, once described as “pure electricity” by Leonard Bernstein, eloquently recounts her life and career through interviews, unpublished letters, diaries and memoirs – and, especially, through her mesmerising performances – in a riveting self-portrait.
“By sifting through these materials four decades after Callas’s death, the movie aims to correct a popular perception – spread by the news media and interpretive biographies (Terrence McNally’s play Master Class) – that Callas was a diva offstage as well as on.
Whether the results qualify as a comprehensive portrayal is best debated by opera historians, but what is clear is that Maria by Callas provides an excellent introduction to Callas’s artistry. The director, Tom Volf, allows several arias to play in full, so that it’s possible to hear the astonishing sustained quality of her voice and to see, in performances of Bizet and Bellini, among others, what we are repeatedly told – that she was also a good actress.
The documentary runs, chronologically, through career highlights, including a ridiculed 1958 performance of ‘Norma’ that was cancelled after one act (Callas had bronchitis) and her eyebrow-raising more-than-friendship with Aristotle Onassis, which began when both were married to others and ended, for a while anyway, after she learned, apparently from news reports, that he was marrying Jackie Kennedy… A documentary that revitalizes history through primary sources, to illuminating, at times enthralling effect.” — Ben Kenigsberg, NY Times
“The gorgeous footage of her performances and outfits doubles as a midcentury fashion documentary. In almost every photo and reel, her eyeliner is perfectly emphasized, her hair styled and her clothes immaculately designed to look elegant at all hours and occasions. Everyone from the men who complained about Callas’ behavior to her adoring public waiting for hours outside Lincoln Center is included in her story, but ultimately, they never overshadow the subject’s voice in the narrative. This time, it’s her turn to speak for herself.” — Monica Castillo, RogerEbert.com