Sometimes it's best to let sleeping divas lie.
Callas fans, who since her death 27 years ago have fueled a cottage industry of her recordings, videos and dishy biographies, will want to see the movie, if only because the soundtrack enshrines a handful of the soprano's greatest hits, including the most unutterably moving "Casta Diva" aria ever recorded. Everyone else will wonder what all the fuss was about.
Zeffirelli hedges his bets by calling the film a "personal fantasy" rather than a straightforward biography. But by aspiring no higher than campy adulation, it ill serves the memory of the most storied opera diva of the last century.
The task of playing Zeffirelli's alter ego in the movie falls to Jeremy Irons, decked out in leather jacket and ponytail as Larry Kelly, Callas' former manager, who has switched from handling the temperamental prima donna to managing a rock band. He visits Callas (Fanny Ardant) in her palatial Paris apartment and is shocked to find a disillusioned recluse mourning the loss of her voice and Aristotle Onassis while popping pills and wallowing in the sounds of her old recordings.
Then comes the proposal: What if Kelly were to revitalize Callas' career and creative spirit by casting her as Bizet's Carmen, a role she recorded but never sang on stage? Callas at first resists, then succumbs to this Faustian bargain, tantalized by the prospect of recapturing her lost glory.
There is a silly subplot involving Kelly's infatuation with a handsome artist (Jay Rodan), whose kitschy paintings Callas unaccountably adores.
But, wait, it gets sillier. Zeffirelli, prince of operatic excess, stages a Classics Comix version of "Carmen" that just goes to prove that opera and film make stranger bedfellows than Liza Minnelli and David Gest. Filled with the director's trademark opulent sets, pretty-boy actors, swirling dancers and hordes of extras, this "Carmen" is so howlingly awful that Callas might consider suing from beyond the grave.
With her sensuous lips, noble nose and imperious glare, Ardant (who actually played Callas in a Paris production of the Terrance McNally play "Master Class") looks uncannily like the diva and oozes prefab allure in a glamorous succession of Chanel outfits. The French actress may be a great Callas impersonator, but she looks painfully embarrassed whenever she is called upon to mime Callas karaoke.
"Callas Forever" begs the question: What value is art if art is only a concocted illusion? The real Callas fought for dramatic truth on the operatic stage throughout a career that had already peaked by the time of Covent Garden's famous 1964 production of Puccini's "Tosca," a show Zeffirelli directed and Lyric Opera will mount in February.
Now in his 80s, the director wants us to applaud the fierce artistic integrity his fictional Callas musters at the end of her life, even as he indulges in shameless fakery the real Callas would have deplored.
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli; written by Martin Sherman and Zeffirelli; photographed by Ennio Guarnieri; edited by Sean Barton; production designed by Carlo Centolavigna; original music by Alessio Vlad; produced by Riccardo Tozzi, Giovannella Zannoni. A here! Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:51. No MPAA rating.
Maria Callas - Fanny Ardant
Larry Kelly - Jeremy Irons
Sarah Keller - Joan Plowright
Michael - Jay Rodan
Marco - Gabriel Garko