Callas Forever

I may have missed the point when I jotted in my notes during “Callas Forever” that the film, a “what if?” scenario concerning the last days of legendary opera singer Maria Callas, had more opera scenes than it needed. “Callas Forever” is, I now realize, made expressly FOR opera fans, people who know and care who Maria Callas was. As such, it would be impossible for it to have “too many” opera scenes.

For people like me, who have casual, mildly suspicious feelings toward opera, and who are only dimly aware that a legend such as Callas existed — well, for us the film was not intended. It is Franco Zeffirelli’s tribute to one of his idols, written (with Martin Sherman) and directed by the Italian filmmaker as an enthusiastic, heartfelt eulogy for her. And if you didn’t know the deceased, don’t go to the funeral, you dig?

It is set in Paris in 1977, months before Callas’ death at 53. Maria (played with considerable passion by Fanny Ardant) is in decline. Her voice is way past its prime, her fans have mostly forsaken her, and she is still reeling from a concert in Japan that she considers to have been a disaster. For that matter, she is still reeling from the loss of Aristotle Onassis, who dumped her for Jackie Kennedy a decade earlier and who passed away in 1975. Maria rarely leaves her apartment now, spending most nights singing along to her old records, sobbing as she mourns the loss of her career, her voice and her lover.

Her former manager, Larry Kelly (Jeremy Irons), a gay, pony-tailed cad who now handles publicity for a punk rock group, finds Maria in this condition when he stops in Paris while on tour with the band. Seeking to reinvigorate her (or at least get her out of the house), he conceives a glorious idea that he calls “Callas Forever.” He wants to produce a film version of Bizet’s “Carmen” and have Maria play the title role, lip-synching to her old recording of the opera, from back when her voice was at its peak. She only recorded the role, never actually performed it onstage. Now’s her chance to fulfill a dream.

It takes some persuasion, but Maria eventually agrees to the project, though she has nagging doubts about such a project’s artistic integrity. Isn’t lip-synching to an old recording somehow deceptive, even if it’s still her singing?

The film splits its time between focusing on Maria’s last burst of energy at the end of her career, and Larry’s adoration of her, which takes priority over most other aspects of his life. Larry is probably a stand-in for Zeffirelli himself, who has directed stage productions of several operas (including “Carmen,” which he gets to re-stage quite a bit of here), and who was a devoted admirer of Maria Callas.

For Callas fans, the film offers a treat: Rather than have an actress or singer attempt to impersonate Callas’ voice, Zeffirelli uses her actual recordings on the soundtrack, and he uses them abundantly. That, coupled with the many scenes of Fanny Ardant as Maria Callas as Carmen, lip-synching to Callas’ “Carmen” recordings, make the film a tantalizing offer for devotees of the diva.

As a film, however, it’s a bit skimpy. Ardant and Irons are very good, as is the wonderful Joan Plowright as a reporter whom Maria confides in, and Zeffirelli ably captures the look and feel of Europe in the 1970s. But the film seldom dips below the surface. For all the time spent on Larry’s story, we hardly get to know him, and Maria ultimately comes off as just another Norma Desmond type, a huge star who has outgrown herself. I suspect “Callas Forever” is nothing more than Zeffirelli’s own wish-fulfillment, pretending to stage a production of “Carmen” with Fanny Ardant acting as proxy for his late, great star. If you want to peer in at his fantasy, go right ahead.

C (1 hr., 51 min.; PG-13, scattered harsh profanity.)