Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Franco Zeffirelli's 2002 film invents a fictional comeback for the legendary opera diva Maria Callas. Although filmed in English, this surprisingly engaging film was reportedly not even released in the United States or England. What shapes up as an important picture eventually falls back on ancient showbiz clichés but there is plenty of spirited scenery-chewing and exuberantly-staged opera along the way. The visually arresting Fanny Ardant makes a positive impression as a dream vision Ms. Callas, while Zeffirelli pulls off the extravagant film-within-a-film opera scenes with effortless ease. Callas Forever was his personal dream project - he worked with the real Callas often on the stage.
Sick of putting on rock shows with troublemaking pop stars, impresario Larry Kelly (Jeremy Irons) takes advantage of a stint in Paris to badger the reclusive Maria Callas (Fanny Ardant) into making an odd comeback - on film. Selling the idea to record executives as a way of re-popularizing the Callas library, Kelly proposes doing a musical by having the diva lip-synch to old records made when her voice was still in fine form. Maria breaks from lamenting her lost voice and her dead lover Aristotle Onassis to fully engage herself in a production of Bizet's Carmen, an opera she recorded but never sang in concert.
Savant has no idea why this film didn't get a wider release as it's far more entertaining than Zeffirelli's 1999 Tea and Mussolini. Callas Forever's only crime is the worship of a legendary opera star. Audiences that can't get enough of emotional divas fighting the clock and their failing talents will be absorbed by the film, as Fanny Ardant adds her interpretation of a traumatized artist to memorable work by the likes of Bette Davis, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and others.
An aspect that shouldn't have offended critics is the framing of the story within an
entirely gay subtext. Callas' adoring promoter played by Jeremy Irons is openly gay, as
are all of his associates. A strong subplot deals with Larry Kelly's new lover, an artist. He's
played by Jay Rodan, who neither flies nor is Japanese but acts quite well. The only straight leading player besides Callas appears to be Joan Plowright's wise old journalist. There is much talk of dates and a kiss on a cheek now and then but the movie makes no sexual statement, preferring to imply the notion that only gays are willing to commit to true art and put aesthetics above callow business concerns. Larry Kelly deals with subservient 'collaborators' like Spanish director Esteban Gomez (Manuel de Blas), and then makes speeches to music executives who care only about profits.
The storyline sticks closely to the diva's daily torment while Irons and Plowright take turns
advising her and debating the nature of artistic integrity, the twilight of great talent, etc. The Carmen movie project is a godsend to Callas, who is deteriorating in Garbo-like seclusion. She has a habit of getting drunk, listening all night to her old records and collapsing in tears. Enchanted at the ability to 'perform' again through lip-synchronization, she bursts back into the public eye with confidence and grace. Zeffirelli and Ardant handle this part of the picture perfectly - Callas' arrival on the streets of Paris is like the reappearance of an ancient goddess.
Callas chides Kelly on his gay romance but loses her own sense of perspective in the giddy
excitement of filming. Her awkward backstage play for her ultra-hunky costar Marco (Gabriel Garko)
becomes Fanny Ardant's acting highlight. We've already seen the re-invigorated Callas have the
'fun' of throwing artistic tantrums and tormenting Kelly with seemingly arbitrary demands, in
scenes that come off as groaning clichés despite Ms. Ardant's almost perfect acting. The
abortive attempt to seduce Marco makes Callas realize that an audio trick cannot rejuvenate her;
the meek young singer only wants help with his own singing career. As befits a true diva, the needs of other people never figure in Callas' plans.
This is where Callas Forever and audience sympathy part company. Callas loses confidence in the entire filming project, canceling a second opera film and eventually (bigger spoiler) asking Larry to destroy Carmen entirely. Like Dorothy returned from Oz, she's learned the lesson that the "fake" film, no matter how polished, will tarnish her legend. Larry has his entire fortune tied up in Carmen but agrees to see that it is never shown. They finish with a park-bench talk about artistic responsibility that plays as completely empty posturing. If the idea was so offensive, why didn't Callas' instinct to protect her image kick in earlier? And why didn't the aesthetically elevated Kelly also recognize the idea as detrimental to Callas' legacy?
By inventing a wish-fulfilling fantasy about real people and events, Callas Forever ends up being a little bit like, of all things, the pseudo sci-fi loser The Final Countdown, the silly movie about a modern aircraft carrier that gets caught in a time-warp and is given the chance to defeat the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. Like Callas burying her movie, the time-warp returns the aircraft carrier to the present, thereby making the entire storyline a pointless exercise. The convoluted plot of The Final Countdown is only there to supply the cheap thrill of seeing a new jet shoot down a vintage Japanese Zero. Zeffirelli's whole excuse for Callas Forever is to indulge the opportunity to film Ms. Ardant as Carmen, singing with Maria Callas' voice. A straight Carmen movie made that way would have been total kitsch, like having Reese Witherspoon lip-synch Judy Garland for a remake of The Wizard of Oz. By framing the opera film within a contrived "what if" premise, Callas Forever is a display of kitsch that concludes by lecturing the audience about the pitfalls of kitsch.
Image's DVD of Callas Forever looks great in this enhanced transfer, with 5.1 surround audio that of course uses original Callas recordings. The decorative art direction constantly rewards the eye and the handsomely produced opera sequences show Zeffirelli at his flamboyant best. The disc has a full complement of extras. In addition to a trailer, a superficial but sincere featurette in English is followed by a wide range of interview excerpts from the director and his stars, raw takes prepared for use in publicity material.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Callas Forever rates:
Supplements: trailer, featurette, raw interview bites
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 17, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson