The presiding character in “Eva Doesn’t Sleep” is dead before most of the action takes place: Writer-director Pablo Aguero (“Salamandra”) speculates on the eerie journey of Eva Peron’s body, which disappeared in the aftermath of the 1955 military coup that overthrew her husband, Argentine president Juan Peron, and wasn’t returned to the country until the 1970s. This morbid subject matter is served at a chilly temperature about as far removed from Andrew Lloyd Webber as could possibly be imagined. The elliptical narrative and political intrigue will appeal to those well versed in Argentine history, as well as to arthouse audiences of the sort that flock to Alexander Sokurov’s films, to which “Eva” bears a resemblance in its cerebral approach to history.
The movie unfolds in flashback from 1976, narrated by a military leader from a coup that year credited simply as “Admiral,” but likely representing Jorge Rafael Videla (Gael Garcia Bernal, seen only in the bookends, despite lead billing). A staunch enemy of the woman he repeatedly refers to as “that bitch,” he rues the populism she represented and her championing of the working class. Incorporating black-and-white newsreel footage, the rhythmic, immersive prologue captures the adulation that Eva Peron received in life and the national outpouring of grief that followed her death from cancer in 1952.
The first proper segment centers on Peron’s embalmer, Dr. Pedro Ara (Imanol Arias), who treats her body (stood in for by the actress Sabrina Macchi) with unnerving reverence and intimacy. He sculpts her face to preserve what he sees as her best qualities and cracks her foot and fingers, in just one component of the movie’s sensationally moody sound design. These minimally lit scenes have an ambience that alternately evokes a mad-scientist picture and a religious ceremony, with imagery of the Madonna and child.
The second and most compelling section takes place in 1956, when an army colonel (Denis Lavant, supplying a measure of his spastic physical intensity) is tasked by the military ruling powers with a covert mission to transport Evita’s body. The soldier (Nicolas Goldschmidt) traveling with him steals a peek at the top-secret cargo and seems hypnotized by what he sees (“It isn’t a corpse. It’s her”). As night turns into dawn, the two men argue and eventually brawl, giving the impression that Evita’s presence, even in death, exerts a mystical power. As the voiceover says, “Her body turned us into animals. It drove us crazy. It made us delirious.”
Set in 1969, the third movement extrapolates from the real-life kidnapping of Pedro Aramburu (Daniel Fanego), a general in the 1955 coup who subsequently presided as Argentina’s president over a period of repressive crackdown on all images and mention of the Perons. Here, his kidnappers, self-proclaimed Peronist revolutionaries, put him on trial and demand to know the location of their heroine’s body. One of them, Esther (Sofia Brito), is first seen from behind at an angle that gives her hair bun a ghostly resemblance to Evita’s own. (She is perhaps also the child Esther who catches a glimpse of Evita’s body in the embalming segment.) These tense and spare scenes call to mind Marco Bellocchio’s similar “Good Morning, Night.”
Aguero favors a desaturated, at times almost sepia palette and long takes, some apparently broken up in editing, that help to draw out suspense even while little is happening. The movie’s visceral qualities are substantially enhanced by a theatrical viewing.