Reminiscent in some ways of Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters, this 2002 film from veteran filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli slipped under the radar most places (including Asheville), and despite its fanciful — occasionally downright preposterous — storyline, it’s hard to see why it didn’t receive more attention.
Certainly, Jeremy Irons is a bankable enough name, and Zeffirelli has a solid enough (if rather specialized) filmography to make its relative obscurity hard to understand. Mixed reviews and a low-profile releasing company assuredly hurt it — as may its central conceit, which is nothing less than Zeffirelli imagining a scenario about the last year of the life of the post-World War II opera diva Maria Callas (Fanny Ardant, 8 Women). It seems natural enough, since Zeffirelli was a close friend of Callas and was around during this final year, but rather than turn the reality into a film, he chose to concoct a fantasy about Callas making a movie of Carmen using her old recording of the opera, since she’s no longer capable of singing.
The appeal for the filmmaker is apparent — he not only gets to honor Callas as he remembers her, but he gets to film Carmen in miniature, and he examines his own life by incorporating Larry Kelly (Jeremy Irons), a middle-aged, gay former manager of Callas into the proceedings. Despite making the character British and a manager (currently managing an unruly rock group, Bad Dreams, whose offscreen antics beleaguer the fellow throughout the movie), it’s obvious that Kelly is Zeffirelli’s onscreen alter ego. In some ways, the film is as much about Zeffirelli as it is about Callas, and that may detract from its apparent goal.
Yet, the story and the splendid performances by Ardant and Irons, some sharp dialogue and the lavish mini-Carmen are so appealing and ingratiating that it’s hard not to be taken in by Zeffirelli’s fantasy. Definitely worth a look. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and strong language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke