Leading a brave life

Monica Bellucci on her daughter Deva Cassel, women directors and Maria Callas: Letters And Memoirs

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Monica Bellucci with Anne-Katrin Titze on the Maria Callas Yves Saint Laurent dress she wore in Yannis Dimolitsas and Tom Volf’s Maria Callas: Letters And Memoirs: “This dress really brings me luck.”
Monica Bellucci with Anne-Katrin Titze on the Maria Callas Yves Saint Laurent dress she wore in Yannis Dimolitsas and Tom Volf’s Maria Callas: Letters And Memoirs: “This dress really brings me luck.”

On the afternoon before a private screening of Yannis Dimolitsas and Tom Volf’s Maria Callas: Letters And Memoirs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Monica Bellucci spoke about the connection she feels to the woman she portrayed on stage, working with women directors, including Kaouther Ben Hania (Oscar-nominated Best International Feature The Man Who Sold His Skin) and Rebecca Miller (The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee), her daughter Deva Cassel (who stars in Laura Luchetti’s The Beautiful Summer, a highlight of Cinecittà and Film at Lincoln Center’s 23rd edition of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea, and the magic of the Maria Callas Yves Saint Laurent dress that brings her luck.

Monica Bellucci on Maria Callas: “The moment that is so incredible to me is when she is singing Carmen in Hamburg in 1962.”
Monica Bellucci on Maria Callas: “The moment that is so incredible to me is when she is singing Carmen in Hamburg in 1962.” Photo: Marcel Hartmann

In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke describes the musings of his protagonist when spotting a young woman in a museum sketching the tapestry in front of her. One or two of the tiny buttons down the back of her dress are unfastened. Those she cannot reach by herself. When the dress was made, there was no talk of her ever leaving the family to go away to the big city, Paris, on her own.

At the start of the film, I was reminded of this scene from the 1910 novel. There is Monica Bellucci in a dressing room, getting ready to go on stage. She puts on the black Yves Saint Laurent dress once worn by Maria Callas. It has a long row of small, cloth-covered buttons down the back and for a moment we gasp until, with one smooth gesture, she zips up the zipper hidden underneath. A perfect example of how much fashion is always in dialogue with the past.

Maria Callas, famous for her style almost as much as for her incredible voice, had been captured over and over again arriving at airports, descending from planes. Here, Monica Bellucci is seen getting in and out of limousines (often wrapped in fabulous, protective coats) during her international tour that started in 2019 and ended this year. “I feel like a bird, sometimes I feel like a little bird” she rehearses lines from Callas letters. On stage, we see in the film, there is a sofa, an orchestra, Callas singing, Bellucci speaking, and a back projection of images from the soprano’s spellbinding life.

Monica Bellucci on Maria Callas: “I feel like I could be in contact with her and, as you said before, her duality. ”
Monica Bellucci on Maria Callas: “I feel like I could be in contact with her and, as you said before, her duality. ” Photo: David Koskas

Her teacher, Elvira de Hidalgo called Callas “perfect, docile, intelligent, hardworking.” Her husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini says in an interview that she wouldn’t have had a career without him. A telegram from Elsa Maxwell reads “I never liked Garbo, but I like you.” Interspersed with snippets from the performance are various interviews with Monica on Callas and herself. When asked if she were “ambitious,” she elegantly redirects to “curious.” In the Paris apartment that belonged to Callas, the saga around Onassis unfolds. When he left her for Jackie Kennedy, her heart was broken. When Callas made Medea with Pasolini in ’71, her only film, the world had changed.

From across the street of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Monica Bellucci joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Maria Callas: Letters And Memoirs.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi! There’s MoMA behind you, I see!

Monica Bellucci: Hello! Yes, we are so honoured to be here at the MoMA [as she says this, sitting on a balcony across from MoMA, the bells of St. Patrick’s start to chime] to present this documentary, Maria Callas Letters & Memoirs. The documentary is about the international tour we did with the play. It’s great to be here because Callas was born in New York in 1923. And, you know, to be at the MoMA, this place that provides inspiration and creativity with its extraordinary exhibitions and collections of modern art, it’s amazing for us to be here, we’re so honoured.

AKT: Wonderful! I would like to start with the Yves Saint Laurent dress!

MB: Yes!

AKT: In the film at the start, which is very telling, we see the back of the dress. We see all the little buttons and the zipper hidden underneath - it has both! In a visual, sartorial way, there is already the duality of Callas. Within the dress there is the zipper that can make it easier for her, whereas to fasten the buttons she would have needed other people to help her. Tell me about this dress that belonged to Callas!

Monica Bellucci: “I think, for her relations were always very difficult.”
Monica Bellucci: “I think, for her relations were always very difficult.” Photo: Marcel Hartmann

MB: Actually when we found the dress, for me it was an incredible emotion already. And when I wore the dress, I said, I can’t believe I can get in! Actually this dress really helped me to get into the role. It was a special moment for me and this dress came with us all over the world, Italy, Spain, Istanbul, Monte Carlo, London, New York. This dress really brings me luck.

AKT: Where is the dress now?

MB: In my house!

AKT: Good to have it for safekeeping! You mentioned that Maria Callas was born in New York. The family left in 1937 to move to Greece. In the documentary we don’t see much about that, but in the play, does it go into more detail about the war years?

MB: In the theater piece there is a letter about all these moments in Greece and actually I can connect with her Mediterranean heart. I mean, she was born in New York, as you said, and she went to Greece, then she became a star in Italy and then she moved to Paris. So she was a foreigner wherever she was. That’s why I can understand her, I can connect with her.

She used to say that music inspired her life and she wanted to share this feeling with her audience. All I can say is that her letters and memoirs inspired my life as well. Humbly, really, in a humble way I try to share this with other people, because really when I read the letters and memoirs, I could feel her soul, her vulnerability. I feel like I could be in contact with her and, as you said before, her duality. She was a diva, she was an incredible artist and at the same time she was a woman with a simple heart. Because she died of sadness, of a broken heart. She was a sincere woman.

Monica Bellucci on Marai Callas: “She created her own person and her own style. She is still inspiring today.”
Monica Bellucci on Marai Callas: “She created her own person and her own style. She is still inspiring today.” Photo: David Koskas

AKT: Sincerity is mentioned quite often and the focus on integrity, honesty and gratitude. These are all values that mean a lot to her and we should be reminded of that.

MB: Yes, absolutely! And I think she still is an inspiration today for that reason. Not just because she was one of the most incredible sopranos of all time, but also because she was a woman who was so courageous. She had the courage to follow her heart. She wanted to divorce in a moment when divorce was forbidden in Italy.

So she really fought for her freedom and she had the courage to live life with such a strong emotion and that’s why we are still here to talk about her. Especially today women have such a place in society, they have such an impact, that there is less fear of speaking up. Because there is more support, they feel more free to open themselves. We have for sure more doctors and lawyers and scientists and directors, but still the process of equality is going to take a long time.

AKT: And the heart can still be in pain.

MB: Right!

AKT: You mention how times have changed when the white-haired gentleman interviews you on stage in Venice, I think, in the documentary. I don’t know who he is. He is asking you about personal sacrifice, “Now seriously, Monica Bellucci, answer me …” and you answer beautifully by saying, well, these are very different times.

MB: These are very different times right now. We are in front of a different era, that’s for sure. That’s why I think we have to find a common ground of communication across all genders if we want this process to be smooth and not violent.

AKT: There is a funny moment in the film when we hear that in 1947 Callas wrote that she first shook the hand of her future husband. And what we see, at least in the film, is a photograph of her husband holding her foot.

Monica BelluccI on Maria Callas: “I could feel her soul, her vulnerability.”
Monica BelluccI on Maria Callas: “I could feel her soul, her vulnerability.” Photo: Marcel Hartmann

MB: Yes! I think, for her relations were always very difficult. We think that the more profound one in her life was Onassis, but it was that actually she didn’t have any children, she didn’t have a family. Often she spoke about her unhappy childhood and the difficult relationship she had with her mother and sister. And she was so courageous because she worked so much and sacrificed her youth for her work.

And then when she met Onassis, she sacrificed all the work she had done until this moment to be with him. Because through him she discovered her femininity and she wanted to live it fully. I mean, I don’t think she’s a victim, she created her own life, accepting the risks. When people say that she had a tragic life, maybe we should say she led a brave life.

AKT: And sometimes even when sacrifice goes wrong you can learn something out of it. As in Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, she sacrifices so much for him, and it doesn’t work out as planned. But she gains something else, an immortal soul. I just recently saw your daughter [Deva Cassel] in The Beautiful Summer [directed by Laura Luchetti], also thanks to Sally [Fischer, who arranged this interview], which was in the Open Roads program. What a great entrance into the cinema world! How do you feel about seeing your daughter on the screen?

MB: I’m so happy to see that she’s happy. And she so full of passion about what she does. She feels so creative and excited. I’m so happy that she was inspired by her family, but she does her own evolution and it’s so beautiful for a mother to see her kids fly.

Maria Callas: Letters And Memoirs poster
Maria Callas: Letters And Memoirs poster

AKT: Callas made the Medea film with Pasolini …

MB: …yes, she did Medea! She made just one film with Pasolini but this film is still big in the history of cinema. She was such an actress, even when she was singing she was acting so well at the same time. We see her singing La Traviata, Norma, Medea, but the moment that is so incredible to me is when she is singing Carmen in Hamburg in 1962.

Because I can see, of course, the talent, but also I can feel the woman. She was so full of passion at that time, I can feel that she’s happy. I think she was so in love as well. I have to say that every time before going on stage, because I was so scared, every time, to see her while she was singing Carmen gave me the strength to go on stage.

AKT: You were shooting The Man Who Sold His Skin with Kaouther Ben Hania at the same time as you were doing the play, weren’t you?

MB: Yes, because the international tour was for 2019 to 2024. And it’s true that I have been working with many female directors. Rebecca Miller and Kaouther Ben Hania, so many. It’s great to have the chance to work with women. As we said before, it’s really a special time and a special moment.

AKT: We started with the Yves Saint Laurent dress you wear on stage. What about Callas, the style icon? Were you inspired for your real life by her style as well?

MB: Sure, she was so elegant! Also she invented herself. She created her own person and her own style. She is still inspiring today.

AKT: I think so too.

MB: As a woman and as an artist. That’s why we are here talking about her!

AKT: Precisely! Thank you so much for this, Monica!

MB: Thank you [she blows me three kisses]!

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