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'Evita': It'll Make Hearts Sink

By Megan Rosenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 1, 1997

To say that "Evita," the movie, is a stunning film is not to say that it is actually good. It stuns the way an avalanche would, or an elephant sitting on your lap. It is long, it is loud, it has enough extras to fill a small country, and it has more costumes than a New Orleans Mardi Gras. For 130 minutes it bludgeons you into submission; when it's over, you are numb.

Since the original "Evita" album, we've had 20 years to get used to the concept of a musical about an Argentine dictator and his mysteriously charismatic spouse. The surprise is not that history is rendered ridiculous when adapted to song, but how appropriate the musical form is for portraying politics. True, this is a dramatic musical, as opposed to a musical comedy, but anyone who has ever witnessed a campaign or a legislative body in session will surely find the flamboyance of the song-and-dance form a perfect vehicle.

So the problem here is not content. It is, first of all, format. Onstage, a musical is a high-wire act, a work of art assembled before your very eyes. On the wide screen it's a bunch of overblown characters singing when they should be talking. The film close-up is not kind to these broadly drawn people -- a Juan Peron who looks like a large marionette with patent-leather hair, a narrator who snarls like a Doberman -- and makes them look even more one-dimensional. Prerecorded songs and film editing eliminate the risk inherent in live performance, and without that breathtaking effort to sing and dance and emote all at the same time and in key, the performers just look silly.

Director Alan Parker, while being honorably true to the stage version, has underestimated what is lost in the transfer from stage to screen. Although he has enlarged the canvas to include seemingly every inch of both Argentina and Hungary (where the movie was filmed), Parker's film still looks stiff and synthetic.

The director's fondness for lines is no help. He really likes lines of people -- butchers with bloody aprons, peasants, soldiers -- strung out in what at first is a visually arresting array. But line after line after line gets to be not so much a signature as a neon sign. "I AM ARTISTIC!" it screams. Even less effective are the many crowd shots -- the yearning poor adoring Evita, rabble-rousers being beaten by police, various and sundry nuns -- because so many faces seem to appear over and over again. It's as though Parker liked a couple of different crowd scenes and just pasted them in whenever he needed one.

The other problem is that the much-hyped Madonna is so unexceptional. Without her bad-girl bustiers and minx persona, she's a woman of just ordinary prettiness -- not beauty -- in a suit of clothes. Many suits, to be precise. She has 80 costumes, according to the publicity material. Madonna is a performer, not an actress, so she is animated primarily by the knowledge that people are looking at her. Her best scenes are on Evita's deathbed (could it be that we're just happy because it's near the end?). Momentarily without makeup, she wanly gasps out her song as the tears flow. It's almost touching.

And now that the world knows Madonna was in the first months of pregnancy while this movie was being made, it is impossible not to notice how frequently she holds her arm -- sometimes hung with a strategically placed purse -- across her tummy or is photographed from behind. It makes you wonder why they didn't just make the suits a little looser.

There is a public perception that this movie glorifies Eva Peron, abetted by the fashion promoters in stores across the country who are hoping we will all decide to pull our hair into buns and buy suits with nipped-in waists. In fact, the movie is very dark -- physically as well as thematically.

Evita is portrayed as a woman traumatized by her illegitimate status, who sleeps her way up the financial and social ladder until she lands Peron. Still an outcast among the ruling upper classes, she turns this rejection into a political battle cry, making Peron into a supposed champion of the downtrodden. She turns herself into a couturier's dream, excusing her taste for luxury as a vision of hope for the starving serfs. Then she dies.

This story is told entirely in music, in the sort of recitative Andrew Lloyd Webber has made his trademark. He is a most economical composer, writing a couple of melodies and then repeating them so often -- with different arrangements -- that he gives the appearance of having written a whole opera. Indeed, although two songs were added to the movie, it's impossible to tell which ones they are without looking at a press release. (They are "You Must Love Me," for which Lloyd Webber's former partner, Tim Rice, was persuaded to write lyrics, and "The Lady's Got Potential," which was dropped from the original stage version.)

"Don't Cry for Me Argentina" is a great musical theater song, dramatic and grandiose, and so are some of the other pieces of the score. And if you like them, maybe you'll enjoy hearing them 500 times.

Antonio Banderas, in the role of the pseudo-Brechtian commentator "Che," initially seems a welcome antidote to the escalating lionizing of Eva Peron. He can sing well, and seems actually to have a character. But as the minutes wear on, he becomes a caricature, popping up like Waldo in every crowd scene, changing from farmer to soldier to waiter as the scene demands. The costumes change, but his sneer remains the same.

Jonathan Pryce, who plays Peron, is a veteran of the musical stage ("Miss Saigon," "Oliver") and there is no doubt he could act rings around Madonna any day of the week. But here he looks trapped, saddled with a bad dye job and a character who is never allowed to get going. He's always looking shiftily from side to side, particularly in the scene in which he and Evita are married, suggesting that his main motivation was to get the heck out of there and go home.

Which, all things considered, was probably not such a bad idea.

Evita is rated PG.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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