Callas Forever is the nexus of the Italian director Franco Zeffirelli's two loves: the world of opera, and the tendency to create polished middlebrow entertainment. This story about his old friend, Maria Callas, is entirely fictional, a sort of biographical fantasy-homage that leaves you with an impression in place of a true understanding. Still, it's finely acted by a trio of stars who keep its dangerously big emotions well under the top.
Set in 1977, the year of Callas' death at age 53, Callas Forever opens at a Paris airport to the whine of a rock guitar. The action soon settles on Larry Kelly (Jeremy Irons), a world-famous music impresario who handled Callas (Fanny Ardant) back in her prime, and who's now in Paris with his new client, Bad Dreams, a punk band so vile that they took a boat to Europe because no airline would sell them tickets.
While getting off the plane, he flirts with Michael (Jay Rodan), a handsome, talented, hearing-impaired young painter who plays Callas to inspire his work. At a music hall, he banters with a lively, if aging, tabloid journalist (Joan Plowright) who's more interested in his new band's criminal records. And then he visits Madame Callas, who's been hiding out from her past, pained by the diminution of her glorious voice. She blames Larry for a disastrous concert in Japan, but he pushes his way into her apartment and makes her an offer that she ultimately can't refuse: Star in a lavish film version of Carmen, lip-synching to a flawless recording that she made in her prime.
"Don't talk to me about second chances," she says, at first refusing his offer. "Did Icarus have a second chance?" She's not a prima donna and not self-pitying, just brutally self-aware -- a brilliant perfectionist who's not perfect any more. And Larry, who's starting to look his years, despite a hip pony tail and a young catamite on the hook, wants to revivify her bravura youth and his own.
From Romeo and Juliet to Tea with Mussolini to Hamlet with Mel Gibson, Zeffirelli has made many enjoyable movies. But he's never made great ones, except perhaps for his opera films -- La Traviata, Pagliacci, Otello -- though their greatness may be relative to their genre. He has just the right mix of insouciance and passion for a project like Callas Forever, and he stages Carmen in generous snippets, with Callas singing on the soundtrack. He knows this medium like the small of his lover's back, so his camera glides gently among rooms and people and rests just where it must to fill the frame with colors, shapes and faces.
His actors complement his achievement: a spirited Plowright, an unusually relaxed Irons and Ardant, a beautiful actress in the '80s and a captivating one today -- the new Deneuve, almost. Her Callas is regal, tempestuous, radiant, terrified and -- can this possibly be an accident? -- ardent. How perfect is that?