As docs go, Tom Volf’s Maria By Callas: In Her Own Words is mellow and unassuming, treading known territory with the clips of interviews Maria Callas gave in her poised, direct way, and arias she delivered as if in angelic (or daemonic) rapture, La Divina unfolding, making the air in the cinema suspend in salutation. There are also her letters, read by one Fanny Ardent, who played Callas in Franco Zeffirelli‘s biopic Callas Forever. Always passionate and honest, albeit carefully articulated, they reveal a woman fully aware of herself and her place in the world, but equally unimpressed by it, longing for human connection and the sacred mundane, the small gestures rather than the grand entrances. A most peculiar propensity for the original diva, holding herself with such natural royalty next to which appointed royals appeared irrevocably ordinary.
What makes this documentary a unique experience is its extraordinary subject, as Maria takes your breath away with her presence and power of expression. One quickly becomes aware of how few artists of Callas’s calibre today are able to sustain such public and artistic integrity – a curious, almost antiquated display of dignity in the face of endless character assassinations prompted by a string of cancelled performances and professional disputes, the predatory press with its eternal hunger for salacious content, feeding the gaping belly of the global spectacle.
Callas was complex, temperamental, and known to hold a grudge. She spoke of her insecurities quite openly, and was notoriously bad with press. But in the footage we see her always courteous, if not particularly obliging. The media rarely can digest a layered and complicated humanity, it lives off the two-dimensional, the soundbite – so when Callas speaks of art, she is asked of scandal. She talks to the journalists in such an adult way, that it’s almost disconcerting, so rarely do we see a celebrity today that is unwilling to dumb-down and please. However, there is no arrogance in her, only a seriousness of intent, thus unwittingly dismissing the reality of who she is addressing. The paparazzi’s playful display of frivolity has a distinct air of menace to it, as much as Barbara Walters’s pseudo-heartfelt sensationalist probes.
Callas never gets the game of it, so she refuses to play. This costs her. Save for one outburst we see, she never explains herself. It takes a toll on her health, as she absorbs all the backlash, and it sinks her emotionally, in increasingly repeating cycles. As an artist Callas has a discipline of steel, but as a performer she allows feelings to overcome her, and all the arrows flung hit their target, bulls-eye.
The paradox is that this heightened sensitivity actually fuels her art. Callas’s emotional life transforms her artistically, her inner state informing every nuance of performance, infusing an eternal moment by perfect timing, a palpable sense of the here and now, with all its contradictions.
The roots of her extraordinary expressive range become clearer still when we understand how Maria Callas’s deep love for Aristotle Onassis was at the same time at the source of her incredible sensuality and vitality, and the well of constant sorrow. That passion seemed to colour everything she touched and did. There is such a distinct difference between Maria pre- and post- Onassis, that juxtaposed, the transmutation looks almost occult. But she set her sails on turbulent seas, with a man who both adored her and cruelly shunned her, ending the dance by pulling her back, all too late. Callas in her forties and early fifties was at her absolute feminine and artistic peak, no matter the much discussed vocal decline. Then Onassis died. Shortly after, so did she, at only 53 years of age.
We do not learn more of Maria Callas in Maria By Callas than she herself would allow, but we do understand, instinctively, just how much a gift like hers overtakes a life, how it becomes the unquestioned raison d’être, whether the human flying those wings wants it, or not. Although directed towards stardom like a cruise missile, her childhood all but obliterated by disciplinarian parental ambition, the talent that everything revolved around was truly otherworldly, of the universal kind – the spell it cast on her audience made stronger by the critics’ assertion at just how technically imperfect that golden voice was.
It was the humanity of the delivery of divinity that was the key to Callas’s impact – and the way she knew, by some uncanny ability, just how to channel an archetype. Seeing her in Pasolini’s Medea, even just for a few screen seconds, shook my soul, if not my world. Something that witnessing her perform in person would have probably done, as it did for so many. Not because she was a goddess (and artistically, she was), but because she put herself in the service of the divine source so fully and, paradoxically, so humbly.