December 4th, 2004
A slightly fiction take on the last year of opera superstar Maria Callas’s life, “Callas Forever” is director Franco Zeffirelli’s most colorful, well paced film in a long time. Helped by strange, but effect performances by Fanny Ardant and Jeremy Irons, “Callas” is a great primer for newcomers to the diva’s talents, but might be a headache to those in the know.
In 1977, rock promoter Larry Kelly (Jeremy Irons) hatched an idea to reunite him with his long, lost client: opera superstar, Maria Callas (Fanny Ardant). Callas, tucked away in the warm confines of her apartment for years, was suffering from depression over the loss of her voice, prompting Kelly to offer Callas a chance to lip-synch her to old recordings in a film version of “Carmen,” thus reintroducing her gifts to the world. Callas takes the challenge, but soon the burden of expectations and self-realization seeps back into her mind, and she must confront the loss of her voice that once made the whole world swoon.
A Franco Zeffirelli film opening with the crashing guitars of The Clash? Has the world gone topsy-turvy?
“Callas Forever” is Zeffirelli’s tribute to his legendary friend, told in a manner that suggests a mixture of fantasy and fact. The balance between the two is never revealed, but regardless of factual minutiae, the filmmaker (“Romeo and Juliet,” “The Champ”) has done a skillful job finding the attraction and the stunning clarity of Callas’s personality, along with the ruthlessness of her diva behavior. “Callas” is nothing short of an all out love fest for the deceased singer (she passed in 1977); mourning the loss of her legendary voice, while reveling in the moment she reclaimed her throne, albeit in deceptive ways. Zeffirelli puts Callas up on a pedestal, and rightly so, but he is careful to demonstrate that behind the stance and authority of this opera singer beat the heart of a broken woman, urgently trying to come to terms with lost moments of her life, in both love and performance.
One of the more controversial aspects to “Callas” is in the casting of Fanny Ardant as the soprano. A vivid French actress, Ardant rises to the challenge of playing a tricky figure like Callas, capturing the intensity the singer expected from herself and all others around her. The twist is that Ardant speaks with a heavily accented tongue, while the real Callas was born in New York, thus removing the promise of a full realization. This is only a minor quibble (Callas enthusiasts are more passionate about this detail), and Ardant erases any doubt of pure replication when it comes time to recreate sequences from Bizet’s “Carmen.” Ardant slinks around the frame, miming the famous opera enthusiastically, feeling every moment as if it were her last one to enjoy. Very impressive.
Jeremy Irons is stuck with a less expressive role, though it’s performed with the actor’s usual charm. His second diva lackey role in just over a month (“Being Julia” the other), Irons’s performance arc here is based around his character’s homosexuality, which is pounded into the film whether it likes it or not. Kelly’s preferred sexual outlet only serves as a performance hook for Irons, and is completely superfluous to the overall plot. Irons performs it winningly, but this subplot was in dire need of deletion.
“Callas” opens strongly, presenting a brisk pace with minimal narrative complications, a rarity for Zeffirelli. The momentum of the film slows considerably in the last half of the picture, possibly in an attempt to sympathize with Callas’s mental state, but Zeffirelli isn’t interesting in explaining exactly why his film slows to a crawl. For Callas beginners, “Callas Forever” is a charming, if slight and potentially fraudulent, imagining of the great talent’s last year. However, for die-hard fans, the contact high from the performances will be exhilarating, but there too many inconsistencies here to concentrate on the portrait Zeffirelli is attempting to paint.
My rating: C+