Callas Forever

on November 05, 2004 by Wade Major
Fans of opera great Maria Callas will likely greet Franco Zeffirelli's tribute to his late friend, "Callas Forever," with mixed feelings. For while "Callas Forever" is, in most regards, a dignified, even inspirational tribute to Callas' talents, it is also a work of pure fiction. Rather than subject audiences to a straightforward biopic, Zeffirelli has invented a peculiar story in which an aging and reclusive Callas briefly recaptures the magic of bygone years.

The story, as such, is fairly preposterous--it's 1977 and music producer Larry Kelly (Jeremy Irons) has turned from Callas to punk rock. But Callas (Fanny Ardant) is forever on his mind. Her voice is shot, a fact which has made the famed diva even more intolerable than when in her prime. But Kelly has an idea: to have Callas lip-synch to her own recordings in film productions of her most memorable operas. After much initial head-banging with the old gal, she finally caves.

Since none of this ever happened, it's hard to become overly involved in the proceedings. Even the film's final twists fall prey to contrivances designed more to rescue the film from historical fact than serve its story. It's a tricky hole that Zeffirelli has dug himself into, and he ultimately spends more time digging himself out than delivering narrative satisfaction. That being said, "Callas Forever" is still a thoroughly lovely film, for what it lacks in credibility it more than makes up for in authenticity and passion.

For Ardant, coming off of rave reviews for "8 Women," "Callas Forever" cements an already stalwart reputation. Her physical resemblance is but the starting point for an incarnation that captures the spirit, even the tortured, turbulent soul, of the great artist. The fits of pique and the flights of euphoria provide the emotional entré in a superbly nuanced, elegantly-textured, magnificently graceful performance. That a pitch-perfect Jeremy Irons appears demure and subdued by comparison testifies to the strength of what may well be Ardant's finest performance to date.

For Zeffirelli, "Callas Forever" is by no means a career high, though it does benefit from his trademark affection for detail. One senses his love for Callas and for filmed opera -- a form which he himself helped pioneer with "Otello" -- but cannot help but be equally impressed by the effortlessness of the production value. It is the mark of a true maestro that what could easily be flaunted is instead relegated more effectively to the background.

Given too much thought, the film does begin to feel superfluous, even trivial. That cinematic lip-synching would be treated as some kind of technical achievement as late as 1977 almost verges on the comedic. Fortunately, there's enough genuine feeling throughout that most audiences won't have time to indulge in too much thinking. Starring Fanny Ardant, Jeremy Irons, Joan Plowright, Jay Rodan and Gabriel Garko. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Written by Martin Sherman and Franco Zeffirelli. Produced by Riccardo Tozzi and Giovannella Zannoni. A Regent release. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and strong language. Running time: 108 min.

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