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By James Wegg | November 14, 2004

Franco Zeffirelli’s “Callas Forever” spins a make-believe story in which Maria Callas is lured from her 1977 recluse existence in Paris to star in a film version of the opera “Carmen.” Since Callas’ erratic soprano voice was beyond hope by that period of her life, the great diva lip would synch to a recording of “Carmen” which she made during her vocal prime.

The obvious question watching this nonsensical film is: why? What was the point in creating such an inane fantasy when Zeffirelli himself was involved in a genuine cinematic drama involving Callas. In 1965, Zeffirelli found Callas, her lover Aristotle Onassis and conductor Herbert von Karajan in a heated struggle over the creation of a movie based on “Tosca.” Onassis wanted to finance a “Tosca” film for Callas, but von Karajan controlled the rights and would not sell them. Callas, for her part, would not work with von Karajan, wisely noting that two prima donnas in a single production are a surplus.

There is no Onassis in “Callas Forever” (the Greek magnate died three years before the story takes place) and von Karajan is absent. Taking their place are imaginary characters with far less flair: Joan Plowright as a busybody music journalist who seems to spend more time worrying about Callas’ pill popping than filing stories and Jeremy Irons as a ponytailed gay music promoter/producer who walks away from staging a punk rock concert to helm the “Carmen” project. Irons’ character is given a young lover in the buff form of a South African painter with a hearing impairment (don’t ask where he came from).

As Callas, French actress Fanny Ardant bears no physical or vocal resemblance to the celebrated diva. Her line readings are slow and halting, as if she is reciting the dialogue phonetically. Her attempts to mime the classic Callas recordings are, to be blunt, an embarrassment.

For a film that takes place in 1977, “Callas Forever” curiously fails to present the clothing and hair styles of that distant era — most of the cast seems strangely contemporary. “Callas Forever” is an Italian-British-French-Spanish-Romanian co-production. A better argument against multinational cooperation cannot be imagined.

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