The early years of Juan and Eva Peron’s relationship are the subject of “Juan and Eva,” writer-director Paula de Luque’s elegant, well-crafted meditation on the relationship between the private and the political. Bending over backward to avoid the melodrama straining beneath its surface, this sober, balanced attempt to fuse romance and history ultimately fails to engage fully as either, but still offers much to enjoy in its perfs and period feel. Pic’s pro-Peron stance has generated debate at home, but auds beyond Hispanic territories are unlikely to feel the love.
Pic charts the events leading up to two of the determining events of 20th-century Argentinean politics: Peron’s election as president and his marriage to Eva. It opens with documentary footage of the 1944 San Juan earthquake, one of several moments where reality is neatly spliced in.
Peron (Osmar Nunez, from de Luque’s “The Dress”), an army colonel, is coordinating fundraising efforts. At a gala, his eye is caught by minor radio star Eva Duarte (Julieta Diaz), and after a bit of flirtation over dinner, they make love in a scene that ends with an image of their clasped hands, a tacky cliche in a film that generally sidesteps them.
Spruille Braden (Alfredo Casero), the greasily rotund American ambassador to Argentina, visits Peron, seeking a WWII ally, but Peron refuses, leading Braden to marshall an anti-Peron faction that represents the first of several threats to his position. Eva dyes her hair blonde and, having done so, becomes suddenly steely, turning into a kind of Yoko Ono to Peron’s John Lennon. To the irritation of Avalos (Fernan Miras), an altogether more traditional military type than Peron who is concerned about his boss’ reputation, she begins to turn up at political meetings.
Both leads are instantly convincing as their real-life counterparts. Nunez, whose perf took an acting prize at Spain’s recent Huelva fest, does good, commanding work in a role that’s challenging on several levels. Radiating an affable populist charm that the real Peron doubtless possessed, Nunez is credible as a figure who inspired devotion in millions; what’s missing is a darker side that might have made the character not just intriguing but fascinating.
Pic doesn’t buy into the popular myth of Eva as a doomed angel: Luque’s Eva coolly uses her influence over her husband to get women’s rights, for example, on the political agenda, while the question of how much love she really feels for Peron (he’s in his late 40s, she’s in her early 20s) is left interestingly open. But the issue of how much each might be using the other for political gain remains largely unexplored, a strand that would have given pic an essential extra layer of complexity.
The script does well to convey the intricacies of the period’s politics and the sense of life in a society that seems to teeter perpetually on the edge of revolution. Willi Behnisch’s lensing is suggestively dark and shadowy, while Ivan Wyszogrod’s somber, piano-based orchestral score is functional at best. Use of slow-motion at moments of crisis rep unnecessarily theatrical flourishes in a film that otherwise tends toward the visually austere.