Dir: Franco Zeffirelli. It-UK-Fr-Sp-Rom. 2002. 103 mins.

Whether Franco Zeffirelli's biopic of opera star Maria Callas satisfies its audience will largely depend on demographics. Like its director, this is a film of the old school that will appeal to an older generation of music lovers and occasional cinemagoers, who do not object to a slightly hammy feature: certainly, cineliterate under-50s are likely to find it over-conventional and over laboured. But ultimately this Italo-heavy European co-production is a decently-crafted melodrama that may, paradoxically, be improved by dubbing. Reactions at the Parisian premiere on Monday, timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Callas' death, were on the whole upbeat, and Callas Forever should end up performing better in continental Europe than Zeffirelli's previous outing, Tea With Mussolini. The film opens in France today (Sept 18) and Italy on Friday (Sept 20).

Ever since Maria Callas' death in 1977, the veteran Italian film, theatre and opera director has wanted to make something out of his friendship with the legendary Greek-born diva. But he rejected offers from Columbia (once) and Paramount (twice) as being too keen to replay the gossip and scandal of her relationship with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Finally Zeffirelli came up with a mostly fictionalised tale of Callas' twilight years.

Although Zeffirelli tried to coax Callas out of retirement more than once, his blandishments were never as brazen as those of Larry Kelly, the pony-tailed impressario played here by Jeremy Irons. Kelly is a hardbitten rock band manager, who nevertheless has a soul behind his leather jacket and an Oxbridge accent behind his patois. In Paris with his latest signings, a punk group, he decides to track down Callas (Ardant), who he used to represent.

The diva lives as a near recluse in her Paris flat, seeing nobody but her maid and the doctor who supplies her with pills for everything. At night she listens to old recordings of performances from her glory days in the 1950s and 1960s. With the help of another Callas friend - a journalist played by old Zeffirelli hand Joan Plowright - Kelly talks Callas into making a film version of Carmen, lip-synching to a recording she made years before to disguise the fact that her singing voice is shot to pieces. Sherman's script is thus based on a classic tripartite structure: Callas the recluse; Callas rediscovering the emotion and adulation of her glory days; Callas going back into her shell, a sadder but wiser woman.

However gamely Plowright and Irons fiddle away in the background, Callas Forever stands or falls on reaction to Ardant's performance, which does not live up to the pre-film hype. It is impossible not to make comparisons with the real Callas' screen presence in Pasolini's Medea (1970): whatever one's opinions of that slow-moving arthouse treat, there is no denying the iconic fascination of the diva's face. But although cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri - who also shot Medea - does his best, Ardant does not have the same knack of enslaving the camera. Her English also comes off as wooden, almost laughable, on occasion. Yet there are moments, when Ardant rises above dodgy vowels and melodrama. And the lavish Carmen scenes - which are slipped into and out of with a smoothness that is also a comment on this film's "what is performance, what is real life'" theme - will keep opera buffs happy.

Prod cos: Medusa Film, Cattleya
It dist:
Medusa Film
Fr dist:
Int'l sales:
Capitol Films
Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanella Zannoni
Martin Sherman, Franco Zeffirelli
Ennio Guarnieri
Prod des:
Bruno Cersari
Sean Barton
Alessio Vlad
Main cast:
Fanny Ardant, Jeremy Irons, Joan Plowright, Jay Rodan, Gabriel Garko