- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2004

Maria Callas fans are in luck. Numerous excerpts from her discography are heard in “Callas Forever,” Franco Zeffirelli’s fondly fictionalized memoir, set in Paris in 1977, the last year of the singer’s life.

Pretending that Miss Callas has been lured out of seclusion in order to star in an opera film that will use vintage recordings to enhance her pantomime, the director also stages several full-blown highlights from “Carmen.” Curiously, the opera excerpts look more cinematic and handsome than the body of the film, which has the patina one associates with standard-issue made-for-television features.

Mr. Zeffirelli, a friend and collaborator of the subject, appears to have partially disguised himself as the other principal character, an apocryphal music producer and promoter called Larry Kelly. Played by Jeremy Irons, the impresario reluctantly and then ardently renews acquaintances with the reclusive Miss Callas, portrayed by the statuesque but defiantly ponderous French actress Fanny Ardant.

Showman Kelly is in Paris for a concert with new clients, a rock band called Bad Dreams. A romantic subplot matches him with a young painter named Michael (Jay Rodan) in a transitory love affair. Michael shares a curious emotional connection to Maria Callas; he favors wave patterns in paintings, a trait ascribed to the fact that his mother immersed him in the sounds of Miss Callas when he was recuperating from operations to correct deafness.

Kelly is willing to bankroll half the cost of a “Carmen” feature as a means of coaxing the singer, about 53 at the time, out of a self-pitying shell. The results look and sound encouraging. Just as a follow-up project is being discussed (Maria balks at “La Traviata” but contemplates “Tosca”), the completed production is supposedly jeopardized by the star’s pride in live performance. The idea of a “Carmen” that reaches back for her peerless voice in the 1950s seems a cheat after all, and she urges Kelly to scuttle the movie.

Incredibly, he consents, as a costly token of friendship. The pretext becomes a severe impediment at this point. In conformity to historical fact, Miss Callas dies soon after the “Carmen” adventure. However, she did not leave an unreleased movie in the vaults, so suggesting that she did creates some conspicuous lurching as the movie struggles to end. While getting out of Dodge, so to speak, Mr. Zeffirelli falls back on more had-we-but-known ruefulness than any actor should be expected to feign or any spectator to swallow.

The allure of Miss Ardant, the last consort and leading lady of Francois Truffaut, has always eluded me. She photographs larger than life but can’t seem to shake off a regal hauteur when cast as a heroine. As a movie star, she seems best suited to impassive, perfidious femmes fatales. She played Miss Callas, born in New York City of Greek parents, successfully on the Paris stage, but as a film instrument, she remains picturesque rather than vividly impulsive and vulnerable.

Joan Plowright has an argumentative role as an arts reporter, Sarah Keller, who supposedly goes way back with Miss Callas. That may or may not explain spiels as grotesque as the following: “I’m a journalist. We suck blood.” As a testament to operatic greatness, “Callas Forever” is a toss-up: It neither crashes nor excels, but the soundtrack can be recommended.

**

TITLE: “Callas Forever”

RATING: No MPAA rating (adult subject matter, with occasional profanity and a subplot about a homosexual affair)

CREDITS: Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Screenplay by Martin Sherman and Mr. Zeffirelli. Cinematography by Ennio Guarnieri. Production design by Bruno Cesari. Costume design by Anna Anni, Karl Lagerfeld, Alessandro Lai and Alberto Spiazzi. Music by Alessio Vlad.

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

WEBSITE: www.callasforever-themovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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