Reviewed by James Karas
Babis Tsokas, the Greek-Swedish director, describes his film Our Maria Callas about the famous soprano as a dramatized documentary. That looks like an oxymoron but as it turns out that it is in fact a documentary with dramatized sections.
The film concentrates on the personal history, the tragic life and the Greek roots of the great singer. Her artistic achievement is mentioned and we hear her voice in the background singing some of her signature arias but the film is an homage to the tragic woman who achieved greatness in art but rarely found happiness.
Tsokas, born in 1945, immigrated to Sweden in 1969 and like many immigrants searches his roots. He does the same thing with Callas. Her paternal roots are in a village called Neochori in Messinia. Tsokas finds the ancestral Callas home in the village which looks like a house in Syria that was just bombed.
Maria never lived in that village because her parents left for the United States in July 1923 after the death of their son Vassilis and perhaps because of it. Maria was born in New York on December 2, 1923. She visited the village of her roots during World War II. Tsokas emphasizes Callas’s “Greekness” throughout the film and looks to the tragic aspects of her life as being akin to the fate of some of the heroines of Ancient Greek tragedy.
The importance that Tsokas places on Callas’s Greekness ranges from her singing a traditional Greek song in her youth, to the time she spent in Greece between 1937 and 1945 and visited Neochori, and to her consciousness of being Greek throughout her life. When she is betrayed by tycoon Aristotle Onassis (he famously dumped her for Jackie Kennedy) Tsokas thinks of the betrayed as a parallel to Medea’s fate who hurls curses at the treachersous Jason who abandons her for a princess.
Maria’s mother showed little affection for her and always favored her sister Jackie. Relations between the two deteriorated so drastically that in the end her mother did not even attend Maria’s funeral.
Tsokas uses film clips and still photos from the life of Callas and dramatizes some parts in black and white and others in colour. He uses Myrto Kamvisidi to play Callas. She has is a strikingly beautiful face that bears some resemblance to Callas (who was not beautiful) and she speaks lines attributed to the soprano as well as singing a lullaby. There is no attempt for her to act out Callas’s histrionic side but she does illustrate some events in the life of Callas.
One of the touching scenes that Tsokas recreates with Kamvisidi is Callas’s visit to the Chapel on the private island of Scorpios where Onassis is buried. She is carrying flowers for his tomb but the chapel is locked and she is forced to simply leave the flowers behind. Onassis was the love of her life. She had been married to Giovanni Battista Meneghini and Tsokas gives an image of a loving couple where he adores and protects her and she loves him but more like a father than passionate mate. There is a darker side to the controlling Meneghini but there is no doubt that he helped her career and her letters to him show deep emotion.
Tsokas used over two hundred volunteers and all the actors, except Kamvisidi, were amateurs and were used more to illustrate scenes than to act in them. We visit some of the cities of Callas’s triumphs (New York, London, Paris, Milan, and Verona) as well as residences in Greece and Paris.
We get an engrossing picture of the woman behind the voice and the legend. Tsokas views Callas’s life as tragic. The applause, the adulation and the fame were inevitably followed by a lonely evening at her apartment. Tsokas attributes some of her emotional turmoil and depression to her loveless relationship with her mother, her tragic relationship with Onassis and her failure to produce any children.
Tsokas I think sums up her life by reference to one of the arias that she sung so gloriously: Vissi d’arte from Act II of Puccini’s Tosca. Tosca, a singer, who is about to sacrifice her life for her lover sums up her life in words that are applicable to Maria as well. “I lived for my art, I lived for love. I never did harm to a living soul!”
Callas was supreme in her art, unfortunate in her love and a woman of the Greek diaspora whose life and achievement stretched from the valleys of Messinia to the plains of ancient Attica and around the world.
Our Maria Callas a film directed by Babis Tsokas was shown at the Polymenakio Cultural Centre 30 Thorncliffe Park Drive, Toronto, ON M4H 1H8 on April 3, 2017.