Courted by Hollywood for decades to make a film out of the Maria Callas legend, Franco Zeffirelli has finally directed (with Euro coin) a very personal and eccentric "what if" story, imagining the opera diva shot a filmed version of Bizet's "Carmen" in the last year of her life. Main asset of "Callas Forever" is a stellar perf by Fanny Ardant.

Courted by Hollywood for decades to make a film out of the Maria Callas legend, Franco Zeffirelli has finally directed (with Euro coin) a very personal and eccentric “what if” story, imagining the opera diva shot a filmed version of Bizet’s “Carmen” in the last year of her life. Main asset of “Callas Forever” is a stellar performance by French actress Fanny Ardant — fresh from a year of playing the singer onstage in “Callas Master Class” — who makes her spring to life with breathtaking passion and fire. But her strength in the role may not be enough to ensure the pic more than limited release outside Europe, where it bows this week in France (in its original English-language version) and Italy (dubbed). No U.S. distrib is in the frame so far.

Building on his personal friendship with Callas, whom he directed onstage in “Norma,” “Tosca” and “La Traviata,” Zeffirelli has turned in not the popular biopic U.S. studios wanted, but an impressionistic sketch of the singer drawn in his characteristically strong hues that fear no camp. Opera buffs may be disappointed not to see their heroine depicted in her heyday, and casual viewers may be miffed not to get a melodramatic replay of her affair with Aristotle Onassis, who’s barely mentioned. Still, upscale auds will enjoy the film’s affectionate portrait of the diva, coupled with a selection of her great recordings and Zeffirelli’s dazzling, fictional stagings of “Carmen.”

Callas died 25 years ago, Sept. 16, 1977, and appropriately the story is very much a “Sunset Blvd.”-like tale set in the twilight of a brilliant career. Paired with Zeffirelli’s semi-autobiographical “Tea With Mussolini,” it can also be seen as a backward look at the 78-year-old helmer’s hyperactive career as an opera and film director. (He is an exact contemporary of Callas.) Film underlines his ability to stage great opera, his intimacy with the world’s top performers, and his preference for a popular, if often heavy-handed, filmmaking style.

Main body of the movie is weighed down by flat, expository dialogue and a lot of pedestrian filming. However, Zeffirelli’s shooting of the “Carmen” sequences, which make up a sizable chunk of the film and are far and away the pic’s most exhilarating sections, are graceful and fluid. At 53, Callas is a seriously depressed woman who lives in solitude, mourning the loss of her voice. But she’s not the only aging artist in the film who loses her creative powers and makes a Faustian pact with the devil to get them back. Equally important, if lower key, is her (fictional) former manager, the gay Larry Kelly (a pony-tailed Jeremy Irons).

Pic’s long opening sequence, shot in a pseudo-hip ’70s style that is grating to watch, shows Kelly’s arrival in Paris to manage a hot punk band famous for urinating on their audiences and destroying hotel suites. Kelly, like Callas, will be redeemed in the course of the story. His flirtation with Michael (Jay Rodan), a cute young painter at the airport, takes pic far afield from its purported subject, but stresses Kelly as a thematic double for Callas.

Kelly is also the devil who tempts Callas to leave the isolation of her Parisian apartment, full of photographs and memories. He spies on her late at night as she passionately sings along to her old recordings.

Ardant’s strong features, coupled with what could pass for a slight Greek accent, give a vivid impression of the temperamental singer. She foams and rages at Kelly, masochistically showing him a tape of her disastrous last concert in Japan. Kelly’s subsequent proposal is truly diabolical: She will be filmed as she is in the Carmen role, but they will use playback to dub her singing voice at its height.

With the collusion of a well-meaning journalist friend (Joan Plowright), Maria agrees to the undertaking. A Spanish director — who could be a stand-in for Carlos Saura — is hired to direct, along with a young singer, Marco, to play Don Jose (Italo thesp Gabriel Garko, handsome but flat). From this point, the film goes in and out of sumptuous stagings of “Carmen,” with the famous “Habaneras” number gamely mimed by Ardant to Callas’ own voice.

Revived by the hard work, Callas allows herself a moment of feminine weakness in her dressing room with the awestruck Marco, but draws back at the last minute. In the same vein, she later reconsiders her participation in the project, which she judges a magnificent fake. “Vampires live forever,” she reflects to Kelly, realizing that artistic integrity forbids the realization of her dream of recapturing her lost youth and voice.

Zeffirelli conveys the importance art and opera had for Callas through her intimate knowledge of the roles and techniques. From this perspective, the story’s elaborate fiction makes sense, as it practically eliminates the need to describe Callas as a woman and allows Zeffirelli to portray her, most respectfully, as a pure artist.

This is in line with Ardant’s correct choice to go for the singer’s essence rather than just mimic her mannerisms. Irons’ Kelly seems in many ways a stand-in for Zeffirelli himself, who once unsuccessfully tried to convince Callas to do a similar playback project. The British thesp convincingly combines the impresario’s money-grubbing and refined sides, while his natural portrayal of Kelly’s homosexuality is one of the film’s most modern angles. At the other extreme, Plowright’s plain-talking journalist is a delightful throwback to an earlier era of cinema.

Lensing by Ennio Guarnieri, who shot the only film Callas ever made, Pasolini’s 1970 “Medea,” swings between harsh ’70s lighting and the refined sensuality of the “Carmen” scenes, shot on Carlo Centolavigna’s striking stage sets and on location in Cordova, Spain. Bruno Cesari’s production design is painstaking in recreating Callas’ home, while couturier Chanel goes beyond product placement to being actually cited as the diva’s favorite label.

Callas Forever

Production

A Medusa (in Italy)/BAC Distribution (in France) release of a Medusa Film, Cattleya (Italy)/Film & General Prods. (U.K.)/Galfin (France)/Mediapro Pictures (Romania)/Alquimia Cinema (Spain) production. (International sales: Capitol Films, London.) Produced by Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanella Zannoni. Executive producers, Marco Chimenz, Giovanni Stabilini. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Screenplay, Martin Sherman, Zeffirelli.

Crew

Camera (color), Ennio Guarnieri; editor, Sean Barton; music, Alessio Vlad; production designer, Bruno Cesari; art director ("Carmen" sets), Carlo Centolavigna; costume designers, Anna Anni, Alberto Spiazzi, Alessandro Lai; sound (Dolby), Tony Dawe, Peter Lindsay; associate producer, Pippo Pisciotto. Reviewed at Gaumont Grand Ecran, Paris, Sept. 15, 2002. Running time: 108 MIN.

With

Maria Callas - Fanny Ardant Larry Kelly - Jeremy Irons Sarah Keller - Joan Plowright Michael - Jay Rodan Marco - Gabriel Garko
With: Manuel DeBlas, Stephen Billington, Alessandro Bertolucci, Jean Dalric, Olivier Galfione, Roberto Sanchez, El Camborio, Achille Brugnini, Justino Diaz. (English dialogue version.)

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