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Evita

Review by Carrie Gorringe

Directed by Alan Parker.

Starring Madonna, Antonio Banderas,
and Jonathan Pryce.

Screenplay by Alan Parker and Oliver Stone,
from the musical by
Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

 

As anyone who has kept in touch with the progress (or lack thereof) of Evita over the tortuous process of conversion from stage to screen knows all too well, it is the film that almost didn’t get made; the concept of making a film from Lloyd-Webber and Rice’s stage hit has been kicking around the studios for at least fifteen years. Along the way, so many actresses had been considered for the part -- Michelle Pfeiffer more recently and Liza Minnelli in an earlier incarnation -- that the casting call seemed perilously similar to that other mad search for the woman born to play Scarlett O’Hara some sixty years earlier. Now, Madame Ciccione has emerged the victor (insofar as she succeeded where others failed in getting herself onto celluloid), and, as usual, her participation has generated controversy -- the only difference being that, unlike in other instances, this controversy is not of her own making. Earlier this year, several pro-Peronist groups and then the Argentinean government objected to the filming of some key scenes of Evita in Argentina on the grounds that Madonna was an unacceptable choice to properly convey the essence of the first Mrs. Peron, revered by many Argentineans as a saint because of her wholehearted embrace of the poor and downtrodden. Madonna’s morality, these groups claimed, was too questionable for words. Hence the Evita cast and crew were obliged to film as quickly as possible and then to beat a hasty retreat over to Eastern Europe where doubtless fewer Evita supporters resided.

For anyone who knows the life story of the real Eva Peron, as opposed to the nice glossy newsreels and propaganda speeches, the casting of Madonna as her cinematic alter-ego was a piece of inspired casting, however unintentional. Both share a ruthless ambition, overweening egoism, and the ability to recycle shopworn symbolism into something perceived as being both exciting and trangressive. Eva Peron, nee Duarte, was born illegitimate and rose to become a semi-successful radio actress through the judicious exercising of the principle of vertical social mobility through horizontal effort. Then she captured the interest of an equally ambitious Juan Peron, who made her his mistress and then married her once he understood her importance to his success. It was she who wooed the crowds into supporting her husband, convincing the "shirtless ones" that only she and her husband cared enough about them to improve their lot for the price of a vote. Once installed as first lady of Argentina, Mrs. Peron established "reforms" that can most charitably be characterized as piecemeal and ineffective. She also had hospitals built under her imprimatur which did more for her image than for anyone who required emergency care. However, milady was capable of persuading the poverty-stricken that she really loved them, and was acting only on their behalf, even if it meant having to raid the public purse in order to do so. Although she was probably one of the few Argentineans of note to even go through the motions of caring for the socially dispossessed, her altruistic tendencies must have rested somewhat easier on her mind and purse knowing that her own money was not involved. Mrs. Peron’s real interests in life, according to several of the more honest intimates of the Peronist circle, were apparently restricted to the insatiable collecting of designer gowns and the extension of her personal power. In addition, her political thinking never veered higher than the average sob-sister cliches; the newly-discovered volume of Evita’s thoughts, if one might excuse the term, goes on in nauseating detail about her love for the people (someone had to pay for the Dior dresses, after all). She died in 1952 after a nasty fight with uterine cancer, aged thirty-three, her beauty and image intact. Many of her financial and ideological shenanigans might have caught up with her had she not possessed an immaculate sense of timing, but timing, as Madonna herself might tell you, is the essence of being a public icon.

Continuing in this iconographic tradition, the cinematic version of Evita is, alas, as terminally superficial as its main character and one of its weakest elements lies in its lead actress. The role of Eva Peron was supposed to be the performance that would provide incontrovertible evidence of Madonna’s apparently God-given right to become a cinematic legend; since we’ve all been waiting for at least twelve years, and through countless unwatchable films, for her to provide said evidence, we should be grateful, apparently, for any end to the talent drought, no matter how self-declared it most surely is. Her Unholiness has already implied, with Her usual more-than-indecent haste, that said performance is of an impeachable caliber. Indeed, in Her opinion, the Academy can simply stop wasting its time assembling a list of Best Actress nominations and provide Her with the award that She is surely going to win. Such prognostications are laughably premature at best. To be both fair and crass -- and I know She wouldn’t have it any other way -- Madonna does give great screen presence. She physically embodies the late Evita in a manner that is almost like a resurrection of the very artificial original, right down to the overweening ego; when Madonna sings the new song written for the cinematic version, You Must Love Me (written by Rice and Lloyd-Webber), it doesn’t require much of a stretch to imagine Evita singing it as well, and the inability to separate actress from historical figure inspires less pathos than a sense of eerieness that borders upon the ghoulish. It is, therefore, rather unfortunate to have to report that the entire illusion constructed by Madonna is demolished utterly the minute that the lady opens her mouth to exercise her octave-challenged range upon the Rice-Lloyd Webber repertoire. Moreover, the sound engineers have obviously been working overtime to give some lift to what isn’t naturally there; the voice has been subjected to so much sweetening that a persistent and annoying echo rings under each syllable. This may be what Hollywood means by "star quality," but the only thing that Buenos Aries needs to stand back from is the embarrassing spectacle of a singer performing the vocal equivalent of a little girl trying to walk in her mother’s shoes. The Argentineans have every reason to be upset with Madonna, but not for the reasons they had in mind (though they should not be upset with Pryce, who provides as much suaveness as he can to his one-dimensional role or with Banderas as the narrator, Che, who carries this picture single-handedly with great charm and a surprisingly enjoyable singing voice).

Compounding Evita’s problems is director Alan Parker. Never a master of cinematic excitement, the structure of his films -- even his musicals, like Fame and Pink Floyd: The Wall -- tends to resemble an unconditioned runner: lots of enthusiasm for the endeavor at the start followed by flagging energy culminating in exhaustion at the finish. Parker then compounds his own compounding by adding Oliver Stone -- never a master of cinematic subtlety -- to Evita's credits. The result is the worst of both worlds: risible hyperactivity and narrative neurasthenia operating side-by-side, with neither acting as a check upon the other. The harm caused by this folie a deux is most obvious in the staging of the musical numbers, the film's lifeblood. Why bother with the rich metaphorical choreography from the Broadway musical when it is so much easier to inspire passion and provide an adequate sense of sweeping geography by borrowing crowd shots nearly whole cloth from David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago (if it hadn’t been for the Spanish-language banners carried by the Peronist and anti-Peronist crowds, I could have sworn that I was watching Lean’s interpretation of the Russian Revolution). He also borrows somewhat liberally from the much-reviled-but-often-imitated Leni Riefenstahl (in particular, the sequence in which Mrs. Peron returns from her less-than-whirlwind tour of Europe recalls the opening sequence of Triumph of the Will a little too closely for comfort, as do those shots of a victorious Evita confronting her followers from the balcony of the Presidential Palace). The borrowings are clumsy and confuse whatever message the film wants to provide. Does Parker think of Evita as a Hitlerian figure, or is she simply Argentina’s equivalent of the American Dream: a bad girl made good? Is she both, and, if she is, then what does that say about the role that Argentineans played in creating Evita the Legend, or of any country in any context that creates legends?

None of these important questions are touched upon even tangentially in Parker's version. Tim Rice’s cleverly satirical lyrics capture much of the ambiguity in these sorts of situations (as when Che reminds the audience near the beginning of the film that Evita really didn’t accomplish much of anything during her lifetime to deserve a hero’s funeral), but Parker is too preoccupied with putting a gloss on the Madonna legend to be bothered with anything as messy as ambiguity; after all, he has to get to the great star-making death scene as soon as is decently possible. Instead of depth with a glossy surface, as was provided by the musical, Parker goes for the reverse, hoping that it will be sufficient. He introduces details such as Evita’s locking of her bedroom door soon after her marriage to Juan Peron, without taking the trouble to explain just why the marriage has come to this impasse so soon. By doing so, Parker allows the audience to believe that the Perons’ marriage was a political sham. The explanation is too simplistic -- they did love each other, in the fashion that politically interdependent couples tend to, with each recognizing and respecting the importance of the other in the central aim of achieving power. Again, however, this representation of "fraud" is yet another example of Parker’s discomfort with the uncomfortable. In refusing to confront this central problem, Parker fills Evita the film with lots of overwhelming, if empty, spectacle, but strips it of relevance.


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