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'Evita' Keeps Its Promise

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 3, 1997

"She had her moments/ she had her style ... She didn't say much but she said it loud."

That's the judgment on Eva Duarte Peron by Che (Antonia Banderas), and it fits "Evita" just as well. The Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical, which has had a much longer run than Peron herself did as the "spiritual leader" of Argentina in the '40s, has finally made it to the big screen, with Madonna in the title role, Banderas as the Everyman commentator and Jonathan Pryce as Gen. Juan Peron, who became president of Argentina as much through Eva Peron's populist grandstanding as traditional Latin American political machinations.

Given Madonna's previously undistinguished film credits, the major questions are: Can she carry a film in which she is clearly the major dramatic focus? And, given Madonna's previously thin pop vocal presence, can she project in an appropriately theatrical manner, particularly in a film in which just about everything is sung?

The answers are more yes than no. Overall, Madonna's performance is focused, committed, surrendered to the role. Her weakness with dialogue is never an issue, though she still has problems with physical emoting. She's at her best on the gorgeous ballad, "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," which is reprised in various ways throughout the film.

Directed by Alan Parker, "Evita" is long (130 minutes) but visually resplendent, thanks to cinematographer Darius Khondji, production designer Brian Morris and costumer Penny Rose. With lavish sets and densely populated tableaux, it evokes not only a particular time and place -- Argentina in the '40s and early '50s -- but the reigning oligarchy and military's great disdain for the masses.

We first see Eva as a 7-year-old, an illegitimate child of provincial poverty, cruelly barred from the funeral of her father by his middle-class family. It is oversimplification to suggest that single snub inspired Eva Peron's subsequent career, but it clearly informed her lifelong antipathy toward the middle and upper classes.

As a teenager, Eva latches on to a traveling tango singer (Jimmy Nail) who takes her back to Buenos Aires but quickly abandons her to return to his family. Clearly ambitious, Eva turns to modeling, which leads to a movie career as well as to the social swirl in which she seduces her way up the food chain and, soon after, the military chain of command before finally meeting her destiny in Juan Peron.

Some of "Evita's" strongest sequences come here: "The Lady's Got Potential" humorously recounts Peron's sweeping her way to the top through an increasingly large group of romantic alumni; the first meeting with Peron produces the tender duet, "I'd Be Surprisingly Good for You"; "Peron's Latest Flame/A New Argentina" offers caustic visual and musical crosscutting as Eva takes increasingly populist stances under the disapproving gaze of an increasingly disdainful establishment.

When Peron is elected to the presidency, Eva becomes an activist first lady, her grand style and charisma turning her into an idol of the people. In "Evita's" signature showstopper, "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," Eva insists "I am ordinary, unimportant and undeserving of such attention/ unless we all are/ I think we all are, so share my glory."

The reality is that Eva Peron's populist commitment and unchecked philanthropy helped fuel Argentina's deepening economic chaos -- wittily represented through "And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out)." As for the cult of personality that surrounded her, it was clearly self-generated (as Che asks at one point, "Do you now represent anyone's cause but your own?").

Part of the problem with "Evita" -- and this goes back to its origin -- is that Webber, Rice and now Parker and Oliver Stone (who reshaped the screenplay) have an unsettled view about their subject. Is she a heroine or villain? A bed-hopping opportunist whose ruthlessness was confined to the boudoir or a revolutionary whose social passion propelled the limpid Peron to greatness? Even Che concedes a duality when he sings "As soon as the smoke from the funeral clears/ we're all gonna see she did nothing for years."

The film ends with emotional catharsis as Eva Peron is cut down by cancer that kills her at age 33. That sets the stage for two fine ballads, Juan's "Your Little Body's Breaking Down" (his sorrow, as well as a deep and abiding love, are palpable) and Eva's halting deathbed plea, "You Must Love Me" (a new collaboration by the long separated Webber and Rice).

Parker certainly hasn't skimped on ceremonial pomp or on massive crowd scenes. "Evita" is a busy movie with an often noisy soundtrack that can get tedious and monotonous (particularly in the second half), but it's just as likely to sweep one away with its musical, emotional and historical momentum.

Does it rescue Madonna from her movie doldrums? Yes, and it does the same for Antonio Banderas, recently reduced to swarthy hunkdom. "Evita" reminds us that he's a fine actor with great presence; turns out he's a pretty effective singer, as well. Despite the posters, previews and television commercials, no great sparks fly between him and Madonna. But Eva Peron's romance of Argentina's Everyman (and woman), that story is at the heart of "Evita."

EVITA (PG) -- Contains scenes of political unrest and sly sexual innuendo. Cineplex Odeon Uptown.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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