American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
In 1977, when she is 53 and near the end of her life, the great diva Maria Callas is approached by a man who directed some of her greatest performances. He wants to film her in "Carmen." Impossible! she says, playing him a tape of her final concert, in Tokyo, where the great voice was in ruins.
His idea: Use the Callas of today and the voice of Callas in her prime. "But -- it's dishonest!" she says. Still, since almost all European movies until recent years were lip-synched anyway, it is not such a transgression as it seems, and it would at least make possible the great opera film that Callas never made.
This fictional story, told in "Callas Forever," has parallels with real life. Franco Zeffirelli, who directed and co-wrote the film, directed Callas on stage in "Norma," "La Traviata" and "Tosca." In 1964, he directed her TV special "Maria Callas at Covent Garden," and he remained a friend of the singer until the end. In addition to his famous feature work like "Romeo and Juliet" (1967) he directed several films of operas, notably "La Traviata" (1982) and "Pagliacci" (1982) with Placido Domingo and Teresa Stratas, and "Cavalleria Rusticana" (1982) and "Otello" (1986), with Domingo. He must have dreamed of one grand final film for Callas, and might even have spoken with her about it.
What else in the movie is based on fact, we cannot know. Terrence McNally's play "Master Class," which shows Callas teaching opera students, shows her at a similar time in her life, but the story structure of "Callas Forever" is original, and pointed in another direction. It is perhaps Zeffirelli's consolation for the film he was never able to make. (It is small consolation, however, for Faye Dunaway, who starred powerfully in "Master Class" for a year and dreamed of making a film version of the play.)