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Zeffirelli courts camp in 'Callas'

The punch line to ''Callas Forever," Franco Zeffirelli's gushingly bizarre love letter to the late opera singer, comes at the very tail of the end credits, with a card reading, ''The events depicted in this film belong to both the fantasy of the author and the memories of his longstanding friendship with Maria Callas." Insert ''overheated" before ''fantasy," and that's a pretty good description of the movie.

Callas, the Elvis of coloratura sopranos (she even died the same year as the King), was born in New York City and lived her first 14 years in America, but through the magic of cinema, she has been reincarnated with a thick Franco-something accent in the person of Fanny Ardant. To add to the hallucinatory effect, the film casts Jeremy Irons with gold chains and a ponytail as her (fictional) manager Larry Kelly, gives him a hearing-impaired artist boyfriend (Jay Rodan), and tosses in jolly old Joan Plowright as an Elsa Maxwell-inspired journalist for good measure. About all that's missing is Michael Caine as the ghost of Aristotle Onassis.

The year is 1977 -- although you wouldn't know it from the 2002-era clothes, cars, and hairstyles -- and Larry is getting tired managing the latest punk-rock sensation. (Among the many incongruities is the notion of opening a film about Maria Callas with the Clash's ''Complete Control" over the titles.) After snapping up his new boyfriend at the Paris airport, Larry bursts in on a sequestered 53-year-old Callas, who's grieving over her ruined voice. He has a brainstorm: The soprano will film a new version of ''Carmen" using a two-decade-old recording as the vocal track.

Here is the ringing endorsement of lip-synching that Ashlee Simpson, Britney Spears, and Milli Vanilli have been waiting for.

For a while, anyway. As the making of this new ''Carmen" proceeds, it becomes obvious that the film-within-the-film is what has Zeffirelli fired up. The handful of scenes we see are epic in scope and shot with a beautifully fluid confidence, and we realize that this must be the movie the filmmaker -- who directed Callas onstage in the 1950s -- wishes he could have made while she was alive. He's using her real voice, of course, and that only adds to the bent vampiric vibe of the thing. On about five different levels, ''Callas Forever" constitutes grave robbery.

That said, Ardant does something almost miraculous: Looking and sounding nothing like the real Callas, she still locates the woman's pulse. She's an actress who's playing an actress who's playacting to an earlier incarnation of herself, and she puts across both the joy and the terror of the task. (The Chanel outfits help. A lot.)

Ardant skips along the edge of camp and goes right over in an I'm-ready-for-my-close-up-Mr.-DeMille mad scene early on: Callas swigs booze, pops pills, and plays her youthful performance in ''Madama Butterfly" over and over again by candlelight. Irons's response to such scenery munching is to underact, sensible chap, but the 81-year-old Zeffirelli (''Romeo and Juliet") is Ardant's partner in rococo excess. And after a while the frippery drops away, leading to a spooky, out-of-nowhere reenactment of one of Callas's early '70s master classes in which the singer's interpretation of ''Tosca" gives way to the brooding death wish that lies underneath all opera.

In sum, a big, honking tutti-frutti sundae of a movie that nonetheless is shot through with authentic feeling, no more so than in its unexpectedly lovely farewell image. And it may be that there is no other way to capture what by all accounts was a tutti-frutti life.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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