It took director Franco Zeffirelli a quarter of a century to figure out how best to pay homage on screen to his longtime friend and colleague, opera legend Maria Callas, who died at 53 in 1977. It was worth the wait, for with "Callas Forever" he and playwright Martin Sherman have come up with an inspired way to make fiction suggest what Callas the woman was like. Casting the elegant and witty Fanny Ardant as Callas was also inspired. The result is not only one of Zeffirelli's sumptuous productions but also a film that celebrates the sacredness of artistic integrity that to Zeffirelli Callas embodied fully.
By 1977, the year Callas died, she had not only lost her singing voice but also her great love, Aristotle Onassis, first to Jacqueline Kennedy and then to the finality of his 1975 death. But Zeffirelli imagines for her a reprieve, one that allows him to depict the woman he knew and loved and in effect to direct her in a movie, which in reality he never did.
Zeffirelli's alter ego is the fictional Larry Kelly (Jeremy Irons), a British impresario who has just arrived in Paris sometime in 1977 for the performance of one of his rock bands. He had also presented Callas in her faltering final concert performances and had formed with her a loving, if inevitably tempestuous, friendship.
On hand to cover his band is peripatetic British entertainment columnist Sarah Keller (Joan Plowright), tart and plain-spoken, but a staunch friend to both Callas and Kelly.
It is Sarah who shames Kelly into brooking Callas' mercurial temperament to rescue her from her ornate Paris apartment, where she pops pills and listens to her recordings, tormenting herself with the loss of her voice -- and also of Onassis. Kelly has come up with the idea of producing a film version of "Carmen" in which Callas would lip-sync to a recording she had made some 20 years earlier.
At this point it is important to cite that "Callas Forever" possesses an astringent, all-important sense of self-awareness that saves it from sliding into camp. Kelly and Sarah banter about how she may be "a little long in the tooth" to be covering a rock concert -- and how in middle age he may be a tad too old for a ponytail. Once Kelly manages to break through Callas' self-destructive misery and overcome her sense of how bizarre his proposal is, she wonders if, though still beautiful, she can portray Bizet's fiery heroine. This self-awareness on the part of Callas, Kelly and Sarah is crucial to the film's honest expression of Zeffirelli's gay sensibility. It attests to how gay men seem especially adept at handling divas.
The film-within-the-film that becomes the "Carmen" that Zeffirelli would have loved to make with Callas is as bravura as his "La Traviata." Ardant's Callas is gorgeous, the lip-syncing flawless.
Since Callas had never performed "Carmen" on stage, she is energized by making the film and is renewed by the creative process. But once the shooting is over, "Callas Forever" gets to its core, and this is where Ardant comes fully into her own in her portrayal of a great artist. How Ardant's Callas faces up to this predicament reveals all that Zeffirelli so steadfastly cherishes about her. Still, it is lamentable that, either by fate or intention, Callas did not attempt a second career as a dramatic actress.
There is perhaps somewhere an actress, most likely someone of Callas' Greek heritage, who resembles the diva physically more closely than Fanny Ardant does. But Ardant is a boldly striking beauty with a commanding star charisma. As an actress she has delved so deeply within herself that she doesn't have to resemble Callas closely because she has become her from frame one.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Mature themes
Fanny Ardant...Maria Callas
Jeremy Irons...Larry Kelly
Joan Plowright...Sarah Kellar
Gabriel Garko...Marco/Don Jose
A Regent Releasing/here! Films presentation. Director Franco Zeffirelli. Producers Riccardo Tozzi, Giovannella Zannoni. Executive producers Marco Chimenz, Giovanni Stabilini. Screenplay Martin Sherman and Zeffirelli. Cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri. Editor Sean Barton. Music Alessio Vlad. Costumes Anna Anni, Karl Lagerfeld for Fanny Ardant's Chanel gowns. Alessandro Lai, Alberto Spiazzi. Art director Bruno Cesari. Production designer for "Carmen" Carol Centolavigna. Set decorator Maurizia Narducci. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
At selected theaters.