The long-awaited screen version of the celebrated 1978 Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical emerges as a stunningly crafted objet d’art that evokes serious viewer admiration more than passionate excitement. Director Alan Parker has done a dazzling job creating screen images to accompany the wall-to-wall music, resulting in a musical fresco that is much closer to a sophisticated filmed opera than to any conventional tuner. Despite the celebrity of both the property and leading lady Madonna, pic’s nature limits its intrinsic appeal to upscale, culturally aware audiences, the very public who attend legit theater, so it will take a minor miracle, fueled by top reviews, for Disney to put “Evita” over with the general public. Creating an “event” aura via advance-booking, exclusive-run launches in major cities looks like a smart way to start.
Few films can boast such protracted or complicated gestation periods as this one. The original musical, which bowed in London in 1978 and arrived in the U.S. the following year, may have seemed like a screen natural, with its three magnetic leading characters, sweeping historical backdrop and quickly famous score, but many mitigating factors intervened. Oliver Stone came closest to doing it previously, with Meryl Streep in the lead, and enough of his conception evidently remains for him to receive co-screenplay credit with Parker, one of the few contempo directors with a sufficient affinity to the musical form to return to it repeatedly.
Whatever one may think of “Fame” and “Pink Floyd — The Wall,” one can only admire the finesse and resourcefulness with which Parker has visualized “Evita.” Just as Lloyd Webber’s score cascades relentlessly from one number to the next with only the scarcest of spoken dialogue to interrupt them, so do the burnished, indelible images that combine to form a stylized, highly dramatic portrait of the rise and demise of Eva Peron, imperious, beloved first lady of fascist Argentina in mid-century.
Unavoidably putting one in mind of “Citizen Kane” at the outset, Parker begins his heroine’s story in 1952 with the announcement of her death to an audience assembled to watch the sort of cheesy domestic melodrama in which Eva Duarte appeared during her career as an actress. This gambit not only frames the story and provides a link to the title character’s personal past, but makes the crucial connection between Evita and the masses, the working class from which she came and where she always found her greatest support.
This connection is continually stressed in the film’s often dialectical editing, which is effective both in charting the seemingly irresistible rise of Juan Peron’s totalitarian regime in the mid-1940s and in offering ironic and critical illustrations to flesh out the commentary in the songs of Antonio Banderas’ Che character, an ever-changing, one-man Greek chorus who follows Evita’s career from a distance.
Opening reel may, in fact, be the most stupendous in the entire picture, as it combines the news of Evita’s death, the banishment of the illegitimate young Eva from her father’s funeral in a dusty rural town, the breathtaking spectacle of her state funeral procession through downtown Buenos Aires and Che’s sardonic “Oh What a Circus,” performed dynamically by Banderas in a bar.
Story proper picks up in 1936, when 15-year-old Eva, played even here by Madonna, uses her liaison with an itinerant tango singer (the excellent Jimmy Nail) to make the move to the big city. A top tango club dance number, in which Eva makes her way through numerous partners, neatly establishes the attractive young woman’s modus operandi, and the film deftly charts her single-minded rise from dance-hall girl and presumed prostitute to photographic model, aspiring actress and mistress to the increasingly rich and powerful.
Tale comes to a head in 1944, when Eva meets Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce), a rising right-wing military officer. Eva quickly installs herself in Peron’s bed and, increasingly, as a source of inspiration and advice, comes into her own as she uses a radio show to campaign on Peron’s behalf during his period of imprisonment. After his release, the two are married, Peron becomes president and Evita, during a very brief career, becomes one of the significant cult figures of the period, mixing a regal, highly coutured allure with an outward feigned humility and touch for common folk institutionalized in her philanthropic foundations. She died of cancer at 33.
Evita’s relationships with everyone, and with no one moreso than her husband, are defined by cold calculation, and certainly the lack of emotion and intimate moments is among the principal factors that will make it most difficult for general audiences to connect with the events here. Indeed, there is a constant push-pull dynamic between fascination and revulsion for the principal figures, being swept up in the dramatic flow and being distanced from it, and admiring the work’s disciplined focus and yearning for a larger cast of characters.
By the final section, as Evita’s strength begins to ebb and Peron’s grip on power frays a bit, the originality of the film’s approach starts fading somewhat as well. Along with the score, which sinks into a trough of repetitiveness, the visual coups lose their bloom of freshness as the picture pushes to two hours and beyond, making Evita’s climactic death rather less dramatic, and not particularly more resonant, the second time around.
Finally, the wall-of-sound approach achieves a distancing of its own, as all the pre-recorded scenes, largely devoid of ambient sound, impart the same, unreal feel. One comes to long for a little down time, a few intimate moments amid all the spectacle and bombast, no matter how impressive.
And impressive it is. Parker’s handling of crowd scenes is utterly masterful, creating a pageant-like impression that is overwhelming at times and makes full use of one of the things films can do better than any other medium. The director has pulled together the crucial and diverse talents of cinematographer Darius Khondji, production designer Brian Morris, costume designer Penny Rose and choreographer Vincent Paterson, as well as many others, to create a film with the golden-brown, luxuriant richness of the most exclusive private club. Exteriors in Argentina and Hungary have been integrated seamlessly.
Quickly able to eliminate thoughts of the countless other professional parts her career has encompassed, Madonna gives her all to the title role and pulls it off superbly. Dark-eyed, intent and serious, she conquers the character as Evita conquered every challenge she set for herself, and if commentators wish to make their own parallels of this talent to the singer-actress’s own career, so be it.
As the Everyman observer, Banderas is ideal, with the looks to set him apart from the crowd and a vocal conviction that proves highly agreeable. In fascist get-up and with icy malignant demeanor, the impressive Pryce actually looks as much like Joseph Goebbels as he does Peron, a resemblance that doesn’t hurt at all under the circumstances.