Somewhere, Eva Peron must be laughing. After a production history as complex and torturous as the internal politics of Argentina, with enough potential participants as either stars or directors to fill a military junta, the filmed version of "Evita" has turned out to be--surprise!--a filmed version of "Evita."
Despite the ministrations of director Alan Parker and stars Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce, this "Evita" feels distant and devoid of emotional involvement, a cinematic copy of a stage play more than a fiery drama in its own right. Lacking the immediacy of that live show, it is, despite various nips and tucks, basically the theater piece preserved in an elaborate gift box. Or maybe embalmed, as Evita herself was after she died in Buenos Aires in 1952 of cancer at 33.
Though she's been gone for more years than she lived, the real Eva Duarte Peron remains a figure of enormous controversy in Argentina, the subject of at least 30 biographies in Spanish alone, despised as a charlatan and so revered as a saint that some 40,000 letters went to the Vatican describing miracles she worked. As recently as last year newspapers headlined the news that "Doctor Will Auction Blood of Evita Peron."
First as the consort and then the wife of Argentine leader Col. Juan Peron, Evita's visceral connection to "los descamisados," the lower-class shirtless ones, enabled her to wield an unprecedented amount of political power. In her prime she received upward of 12,000 letters a day asking for various kinds of help, and eight people died and 2,100 were injured in the enormous crush around her publicly displayed coffin.
It was very shrewd of librettist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber to have seen how intrinsically show biz Eva Peron's story was, how smoothly it could be made to fit the forms of musical theater. The best measure of its power is that, helped by gold-plated songs like "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," the show's simplified, bastardized version of reality was enthralling enough to earn close to $1 billion around the world.
Ironically, that reality, impeccably re-created by director Parker and production designer Brian Morris, is the most memorable thing about this "Evita." Using up to 40,000 extras, the film is very sure in its sense of spectacle, and its scenes of torch-lit political rallies and the huge crowds who prayed for Evita's recovery have a sense of life that the nominally more dramatic parts of the film lack.
As for Madonna, it is hard to argue with her contention that she was "destined" to play Evita. Few actresses have such an intrinsic understanding of the nexus of private and public worlds that marked Eva Peron's life, and Madonna looks completely convincing in the 85 costume changes, including dozens of different hats, shoes and earrings, the film puts her through.
After scenes of a childhood scarred by illegitimacy, Madonna picks up the role of Eva as a wise teenager, using a liaison with celebrated tango singer Agustin Magaldi (Jimmy Nail) to get herself to Buenos Aires, where she proceeds to use that famous "just a little bit of star quality" to hustle her way to a career as an actress.
When Eva, "the greatest social climber since Cinderella," meets Juan Peron (Pryce), she senses a chance for something more. This meeting of conniving minds, with Eva convincing the colonel that "I'd be good for you," eventually results in the Perons running the country before everything collapses in Evita's ruinous illness and death.
Cynically observing it all is Che (Antonio Banderas), the ever-present narrator-bystander (a change from the play's notion that he was the real-life Che Guevara) who sees it all and believes none of it. Like Madonna and Pryce, Banderas sings all his dialogue, and does a melodic job of it. But good voices can't counteract the feeling of disconnection fostered by the exclusive use of prerecorded sound that makes the action appear to be happening at a noticeable remove from the screen.
As his work with "The Commitments" demonstrated, Parker knows how to bring life to a film by integrating music into it. But here "Evita's" "sung-through" style defeats him and everyone else. Singing all the dialogue worked memorably in the lighter "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," but the style of this piece is completely different, the themes and the lyrics much more obvious and less conversational. Without real dialogue and believable connections between actors, "Evita" is limited in its effectiveness, and all the crying for Argentina in the world can't change that.
* MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements, images of violence and for some sexuality and language. Times guidelines: rioting in the streets while Evita sleeps her way to the top.
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Madonna: Eva Peron
Antonio Banderas: Che
Jonathan Pryce: Juan Peron
Jimmy Nail: Agustin Magaldi
Andrew G. Vajna presents a Cingergi/Robert Stigwood/Dirty Hands production, released by Hollywood Pictures. Director Alan Parker. Producers Robert Stigwood, Alan Parker, Andrew G. Vajna. Screenplay Alan Parker and Oliver Stone, based on the musical play "Evita." Cinematographer Darius Khondji. Editor Gerry Hambling. Costumes Penny Rose. Music Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics Tim Rice. Production design Brian Morris. Art directors Jean-Michel Hugon, Richard Earl. Set decorator Philippe Turlure. Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes.
* Exclusively at Cinerama Dome, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 777-FILM.