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Friday, November 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Moira Macdonald
Some love letters should never be sent, and such is the case with "Callas Forever," a well-intentioned but ultimately mystifying tribute to legendary soprano Maria Callas, from film and opera director Franco Zeffirelli (a friend of Callas until her death in 1977). The film has little to do with the facts of Callas' life; rather, it's a clumsy fantasy of the swan song she might have had, under different circumstances.
The film's bearings are shaky from the start, as it opens with the odd juxtaposition of a blast of rock music and the words "A Franco Zeffirelli Film." The Italian director, now in his 80s, has long been associated with a classical sensibility, evidenced in his opera films ("La Traviata," "Otello") and lavish period dramas ("Romeo and Juliet," "Jane Eyre," "Hamlet"). But here, he's flailing badly from the start. A skinny-ponytailed Jeremy Irons, tossing his plummy voice around, as the manager of a band named Bad Dreams? Joan Plowright as a rock journalist who cheerfully mangles the band name ("Wet Dreams," pronounced with that trademark Plowright precision)? What strange world is this?
Soon Fanny Ardant, as Callas, sashays onto the screen, all cheekbones and lips and a strangely choked accent, and a story begins to take shape. Larry (Irons) has a project he's trying to pitch to Callas, who's in retirement after a miserable concert tour. She's in mourning for her voice, skulking in her cavernous Paris apartment filled with heavy drapes and statuary, like an opera-house lobby. In expensive dressing gowns, she pops pills, swigs wine and listens sadly to recordings of her voice in its prime. Hearing a "Madame Butterfly" aria, she collapses picturesquely on the floor, sobbing. The voice is gone, and she feels empty without it.
But Larry's got a plan: Why not make a series of opera films in which the present-day Callas is featured, but with recordings of her younger voice emerging from her mouth? This is pitched as such a radical notion, audience eyebrows go up: Surely lip-synching already existed in the 1970s? Regardless, she is reluctantly sold on the idea, and the movie promptly turns into a middling production of Bizet's "Carmen," cast mostly with devastating-looking tenors who apparently moonlight as underwear models and interspersed with an entirely pointless subplot about Larry's star-crossed romance with a soulful-looking artist (Jay Rodan, who could sell a few briefs himself).
Maybe Zeffirelli really just wanted to make a movie of "Carmen" but couldn't raise the money; maybe he wanted an excuse to listen to a lot of recordings of Callas. But the end result is never believable, and even the director's usually reliable eye for style deserts him (though Ardant looks smashing in her Chanel ensembles). "Callas Forever" may have been intended as a valentine, but it's ultimately sad; a tribute to an artist that never approaches art.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com
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