"MARIA BY CALLAS" — 3 stars — Maria Callas, Fanny Ardant, Joyce DiDonato; PG (mild thematic elements, some smoking and brief language); Broadway; running time: 113 minutes
Early in "Maria by Callas," the titular opera singer suggests there is a separation between her true identity and the celebrity known around the world.
To get past this gulf, Tom Volf builds his new documentary out of Maria Callas' words exclusively. It's an attempt at an honest, unfiltered, autobiographical self-portrait, and the result will be a treasure for fans of the famous opera star.
Framed with segments from TV interviews, narrated by letters from the artist's own hand and punctuated by generous clips of live performances — many which cover entire songs — "Maria by Callas" moves chronologically through the singer's life but spends most of its time during Callas' heyday in the 1950s and '60s.
We learn early on that, in spite of her regal and sophisticated presence, Callas was actually born in Brooklyn in the 1920s and then moved to Greece as a young teenager to study under Spanish soprano Elvira de Hidalgo. Letters to Hidalgo reveal a trust in a lifelong friend.
From there, Callas sets off on her professional career, singing all over the world throughout the 1950s. Scenes from major performances are offset by historic mile markers like a canceled performance in Rome that contributed to Callas' "tempestuous" reputation as "The Tigress."
"Maria by Callas" goes to the artist's own words to give her side of various scandals — chiefly her longstanding off-and-on affair with Aristotle Onassis. One of the documentary's more skillful and heartbreaking moments juxtaposes Callas' love letter to Onassis against footage of the "wealthy Greek shipping tycoon" with former first lady and future wife Jackie Kennedy.
As much as the documentary celebrates Callas' talent and accomplishments, it's almost more compelling for its exploration of the singer's unfulfilled desires to have a family. "There is no greater wealth on Earth" than family, she asserts in one letter, and in another interview resigns herself to her fate, declaring that "destiny is destiny; there's no way out."
Volf's decision to construct his film exclusively from Callas' words is both unique and limiting. There are no peripheral interviews with friends or family, and no narrator guides the singer's biographical timeline. As a result, it's difficult at times to follow the sequence of events and the audience has to infer details that might have been made more obvious in a traditional documentary. Thanks to the frequent performances, the documentary is also a little longer than normal, clocking in at almost two hours.
"Maria by Callas" will satisfy longtime fans with its many live performances alone — where complete numbers from composers like Giuseppe Verdi, Georges Bizet and Vincenzo Bellini could practically form a live concert film on their own. But the dive into Callas' life offstage and an intimate look at the complexity of her desires creates a portrait of the opera diva that is just as mesmerizing as her wide-ranging voice.
"Maria by Callas" is rated PG for some mild profanity and discussion of some adult themes.