Filmmaker Tom Volf's Maria by Callas works a bit like an opera itself—wildly fascinating for longtime fans and aficionados, dense and not particularly inviting for newcomers. Through narrated writings and recorded audio from the famed Greek-American opera singer Maria Callas, we do get an intimate view of her career, her home life and her trials and tribulations in her own words—but by adding numerous full-length performances throughout the film, Volf slows things to a snail's pace fairly often. Again, if you love opera, you'll probably love that; if you're trying to learn more or understand its popularity—tough luck.
Callas was, we learn, like the preeminent rockstar of her day, or perhaps even bigger. We see numerous TV interviews or footage of her being mobbed by fans and paparazzi in the 1950s, and we realize just how gigantic she truly was. Of course, this was as much about talent as it is the world's bizarre fascination with the famous, and it is proven time and time again that Callas' effortless style was unparalleled, and has surely never been matched since. Try to name even one living opera singer real quick, though … probably only a few of you reading this can.
And though we feel for Callas as we observe her first marriage crumble or watch her adoring public turn on her when she was forced to cancel a performance due to bronchitis, we also get the sense that she was a bit of a prima donna—y'know, in the bad sense of the term. Callas dances around this idea by erring toward showcasing the pressures of her career and fame; however, we feel as we follow the journey that there is no question that too much was expected of the woman.
That makes scenes of her yachting or hitting the town or even just being a normal person at home all the more interesting, and Volf does manage to humanize her throughout the film. But somewhere around the third or fourth complete aria, we kind of zone out despite Callas' gorgeous voice and stirring interpretations. If opera's your thing, you're going to love this portrayal of a 20th-century icon. If you aren't already familiar with the world, though, this won't be the thing that converts you.
+Callas is phenomenal, no question
-This movie gets slow
Maria by Callas
Directed by Volf
Center for Contemporary Arts, PG, 113 min.