Regent Releasing
Fannie Ardant doesn't look like Maria Callas; her acting is over the top.

It's hard to know who to feel more sorry for where "Callas Forever" is involved — the late opera legend Maria Callas, whose memory is sullied by this ludicrous drama, or Franco Zeffirelli, whose continually eroding filmmaking skills are on sad display here.

In fact, if not for his trademark use of soft-focus photography, there's little here to suggest that this film is by the same director who gave us a "definitive" Shakespeare adaptation, his 1968 version of "Romeo and Juliet."

As silly as the film is, it could have been salvaged with a few bright moments of humor — or at least a quick acknowledgment of what overripe cheese this really is. But it's played entirely too straight-faced for its own good. And the fact that the film apparently believes lip-syncing is a valid form of art calls into question the sensibilities of everyone involved.

"Callas Forever" is a sort of "what-if?" scenario that asks the audience to believe Callas (Fanny Ardant) briefly came out of her self-imposed retirement in 1977 at the request of longtime friend and entrepreneur Larry Kelly (Jeremy Irons).

Though, by her admission, Callas' voice is "shot," she's intrigued by Kelly's offer to "sing" again on film — which, in essence, has her lip-syncing along with some of her better 20-year-old recorded performances.

But Callas has some demands — primarily that the film project should be "Carmen," which she sang on recordings but never performed onstage.

Zeffirelli and his co-screenwriters also delve briefly into Callas' ill-fated love affair with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, as well as a go-nowhere subplot about Irons' character's sexuality. Little of it works, and frankly, the film alternates between being dull and being almost campy fun.

What really sinks it, however, is the ridiculously over-the-top performance by Ardant, who looks absolutely nothing like Callas and who apparently thinks she's acting in "Mommie Dearest." It also fails to make good use of Joan Plowright, whose character only seems to be in the movie to provide exposition.

"Callas Forever" is not rated but would probably receive an R for scattered use of strong sexual profanity, some drug content (prescription drug abuse and hypodermic use), some crude innuendo and use of sexual slang terms, and glimpses of nude artwork. Running time: 108 minutes.