For those too young to know who Maria Callas was, a trip to YouTube or Wikipedia will bring you up to speed: Long before Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo, she was that rare opera singer who was also a household name, as famous for her striking beauty and effortless glamour as for her tonal range and lyrical interpretive skills. To observe the New York-born Callas arriving in Rome or Milan or Paris or New York, in a cloud of furs, flowers, poodles and pearls, is to understand the fundamentals of diva style, imitated but never equaled by such successors as Madonna, Rihanna and, most recently, Lady Gaga.
Callas’s command of her own persona is on regal, extravagant display in Tom Volf’s film, in which the director uses the subject’s own words — from letters, diary entries, television interviews and her own memoirs — to narrate a succession of ravishing, rarely seen images, including some of her most famous (and notorious) performances, and candid footage of costume fittings and home movies.
What emerges is a portrait of a woman of extraordinary natural gifts and work ethic, who was pressured to become a superstar by her mother and then her husband, instead of a conventional homemaker and mother. “Destiny is destiny,” she says resignedly at one point. “There’s no way out.” When she falls ill and cancels performances, or is fired from the Metropolitan Opera because of conflicts with its director, the viewer wonders if it’s not her way of retreating from a profession she never truly chose in the first place.
Callas finally finds true love — if not the conventional domestic bliss she craved — when she meets Aristotle Onassis, with whom she carried on a legendary love affair until he met Jacqueline Kennedy. That triangle forms some of the most compelling material in “Maria by Callas,” which is at its best when it simply watches her sing and, in her words, attempt “to reach those heavens where it’s all perfect harmony.”
PG. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic elements, some smoking and brief strong language. In English, French and Italian with subtitles. 113 minutes.