The phone is ringing, jangling, blaring. Once. Twice. Three times. It will not stop.

"No! No! No!" Melina Mercouri moans in a voice befitting Medea. "Not with that! I cannot! I am becoming crazy, crazy, crazy!"

Somewhere, an acolyte hears and responds. The phone is silenced, sacrificed on behalf of the Greek minister of culture. "I want cigarettes!" she calls. "A cigarette, so I can concentrate!" Cigarettes appear. She inhales, luxuriating, and sinks into the fluffy couch. It has always been like this, she explains, "all my life. When you are a cinema actress, they protect you more. When you are a politician, you must be available to everyone."

And for the last 11 years, Melina Mercouri has been a politician, albeit a politician unlike anything this city is used to. The ordinary world seems just a little puny, a little anemic, when Mercouri is around, which is perhaps why she is always so popular when she visits Washington. In a city that yearns for the sweeping political gesture, the perfect act of persuasive rhetoric, a woman who invests every moment with the tumultuous passions of Greek tragedy has a way of dominating press conferences, captivating bureaucrats and stirring people like Sen. Larry Pressler into singing encomiums to her into the Congressional Record.

At this moment, she is merely overwhelming her hotel room, but the day before she engulfed the National Gallery of Art, there to tell the press about the most obvious purpose for her visit -- the opening of the exhibit "The Human Figure in Early Greek Art." In purple leather skirt and jacket, black boots, massive black hat and a long swatch of fur complete with pointy nose and bushy tail, she trailed a white rose languidly along the edge of a glass case, an exaggerated caress that spoke of fingers sliding across a beloved body. The cameras flashed and flashed again as she studied with passion the model of the Acropolis and casually brought the rose to her lips, where it rested for a moment before she moved on.

This is a woman who knows how to get the most out of a prop.

The tour wound through the exhibit, led by NGA Director J. Carter Brown, a man of such highly bred East Coast refinement he seems to inhabit a universe where the air would be far too thin for Mercouri. Still, she managed to suck him into her world with kisses on both cheeks, the greeting "Darling!" and a hand that clutched his arm in appreciation through much of her speech.

"This is almost the most amusing," Brown smiled, stopping at a model of the Acropolis as it appeared in the Middle Ages. "It's like Disney World, with all that crenulation -- and that funny little campanile stuck up out of the Parthenon." Mercouri and Brown stopped again before a 6th-century B.C. statuette of a mourning woman.

"It's so moving," said Brown. "I love the pathos."

"Pathos," murmured Mercouri. "Pathos."

At a black-tie dinner Thursday night, Mercouri conquered the museum yet again, her gold lame' dress sparkling while a band played a chain of Broadway tunes and Greek rhythms that surprised at least one staffer, unused to such jaunty fare. In fact, there was a general air of well-controlled astonishment about the place, as if a hurricane were in the process of whipping through but no one wanted to make too big a deal about it.

"If you don't find it beautiful," Mercouri said to the guests about the exhibit, "both Carter Brown and I will commit a double hari-kari.

"We told him that many of these objects were immortal by the millimeter. He insisted, he blustered and he charmed, because" -- and then she quoted from the '30s song "Love Is Just Around the Corner" -- "strictly between us, he's cuter than Venus. What's more, he's got charms."

In her hotel room, she has traded leather and lame' for black wool pants, heavy gold jewelry and a new coif of honey waves.

"It is harmony and beauty and elegance," she says of the exhibit, which covers the 10th to the 5th century B.C. The stick-figure Homeric warriors, elemental bronze statuettes and monumental young men and women -- the kouroi and korai -- with their firm, enigmatic mouths set in what is called "the Archaic smile," are relatively unfamiliar to a world that equates Greek art with the naturalistic heroic figures of the Classical age. "You must look at it with de'licatesse," says Mercouri, "with appreciation of the unique" -- she utters a throaty jumble of sounds and turns to husband Jules Dassin, her "Never on Sunday" costar and director who acts as her informal interpreter.

"Uniqueness is good," he offers.

"Never with false veneration," she finishes.

When Mercouri speaks about the art and architecture that come under her jurisdiction, it is with the lush passion of a lover, so strong and expansive it negates any questions about its authenticity. This is, after all, the woman who titled her autobiography "I Was Born Greek," making that simple statement sound like an act of defiant principle. It is the same passion she brings to the smallest encounter, that makes strangers feel like intimates and that infuses her political speech -- which tends toward a loving, all-embracing belief in the power of art and artists to save humanity.

"When there was a dictator in my country, who were the people who helped me then?" she asks, referring to the military junta that ran Greece from 1967 to 1973 and stripped Mercouri of her citizenship. "It was the artists, the scientists, the intellectuals. I think they are leading the world."

"Oh, wouldn't that be nice," says the American-born Dassin, smiling wryly.

"I remember Simone and Sartre, when he said, 'All the poor signatures,' " says Mercouri, recalling two who often joined her in political causes.

"Well, I must explain that," says Dassin. "In France, there is always some political issue and people take whole-page advertisements in the newspapers and everyone signs. It was Simone Signoret and Sartre, and Sartre said, 'Oh, here we are again!' "

"I remember Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Albee -- everyone gave their signatures," says Mercouri, her voice thick with nostalgic affection.

These days, she signs government papers and her free-form preface to the exhibit catalogue. It begins:

Now as then.

Then, at the beginning of the first millennium before Christ.

Greek youths have set forth on the road of exploration, some named, others nameless, and have traveled further than ever before ...

The kouroi and the korai.

In an age of impasse, in a world held captive in the net of its own loneliness; kouroi of inner self-sufficiency, korai of human grandeur.

Just past 60, Mercouri still has green eyes dense as stone, and feline movements: She slides from couch to floor and rests there, her legs curled under her. The deep eyes are ringed with dark, dark eye liner and the pink, pink lips slide quickly from pout to wide smile to pucker. The strong face has settled like an aging monument, crumbling a bit around the edges but wearing the years with something between bravery and bravado.

Mercouri comes from a political family -- her father held posts in several national cabinets and her grandfather was mayor of Athens -- and she says she has always felt the connection between artistic work and political expression. "When you are born Greek, you are always in a state of alert about social things." But for many years, politics did not invade the life of the diva who for many people was synonymous with her nation.

At the National Gallery, Mercouri's brother Spiros Mercouris, an official in the ministry in charge of special exhibitions and events, remembered getting into a cab in New York City soon after "Never on Sunday" came out in 1960. "The taxi driver asked me where I was from and I said, 'I'm from Greece.' 'Oh! Melina Mercouri!' he said."

In those years, she says, "when I became, let us say, a star -- because of Dassin -- he did that for me" -- Dassin smiles and demurs -- "then you become a little egocentric, afraid about the close-up, and they make you afraid about your health, about everything. That was the only time I was a little Brechtian."

"You know how Brecht talks about seeing things from a distance," says Dassin. "Alienation."

"It was like that for a while," says Mercouri. "Then the junta came and I was very much moved."

During the years that followed, the exiled Mercouri became outspoken on the subject of Greece and its people's desire for democracy. "When I came back to Greece, it became impossible not to interfere in politics," she says.

"Interfere meaning to participate," offers Dassin.

After the junta fell, Mercouri ran for Parliament with the socialist Pasok party of Andreas Papandreou and lost. But three years later she won, becoming the first woman to be elected by the port town of Piraeus, where "Never on Sunday" was set. When Pasok won the national elections in 1981, Prime Minister Papandreou appointed her minister of culture and science, a post that has jurisdiction over Greeks abroad and sports as well.

In the beginning, she says, she found it almost impossible to be taken seriously. "They accuse you all the time, they say you are 'an actress!' " she says. "In the first few years, it was very difficult. I worked very, very hard."

On this visit, Mercouri came not only to attend a week of receptions, dinners and concerts in honor of the exhibit, but to discuss further Greek-American cultural exchanges with U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Z. Wick and to remind everyone of her dream that the 1996 Olympics will be held in Athens in honor of the centennial of the modern-day Olympics.

"We believe in Greece that it is justice to come to Greece for the 100th anniversary and make the Olympic Games," she says. "It belongs to us. And I believe the athletes would be very happy to do this." She envisions the opening ceremonies in Olympia and the games in Athens as a demonstration of excellence in both body and mind. "It's another kind of philosophy we must begin. It is litotita -- austerity." She looks to Dassin.

"The word means something between austerity, simplicity, modesty, control -- it's all there," he says, smiling at the richness of his wife's language.

"The elegance," she adds.

"It's Doric," he says, alluding to the clearly defined, weighty style of an early Classical temple.

Over the years, Mercouri has received the most attention for her campaign to bring back to Greece the marble sculptures that once decorated the Parthenon and now sit in the British Museum, where they have been since the early 19th century. The British Museum has not been receptive to the idea of relinquishing the Elgin Marbles, one of the cornerstones of its collection, and internationally many curators worry about the precedent set by such an act. Carter Brown approaches the subject cautiously: "The logical conclusion of that is a very bad one. If everything goes back to its country of origin, everyone sits behind their nationalistic barriers and no one understands anyone else's culture."

"That would be chaos," Mercouri agrees. "You can't do that. The thing is we speak specifically for the most famous temple in the world that was -- les jambs, les bras, les yeux" -- she pulls at her limbs as if dismembering herself.

"Broken away," says Dassin.

"It was smashed, broken, it was tragic," says Mercouri. "It strikes me very much. When you are born, they talk to you about the Parthenon, the Acropolis. Everyone in Greece thinks they have built it with their own hands. It is the symbol of peace, of so much blood."

The Greek position is that the Parthenon is a unique monument demanding a unique response, and Mercouri says she believes the British public and many political figures support her.

"When they make a Gallup {poll}, we win the Gallup," she says. "If you ask me will I be alive when they come back -- yes, I will be alive. And if I'm not alive, I will be reborn."

And as she says that, her voice deep and her head thrown back, it does not seem completely implausible.