EVITA ** 1/2
"Evita" uses a number of flashbacks, a technique that seems to be more and more frequently used or misused. The film opens with the announcement of Eva Duarte de Peron's death in 1952, cuts back to the provincial funeral in 1926 for Eva's natural father. She was the low-class, illegitimate daughter of a married, philandering local bourgeois. The church service for him has a big heavenly chorus soundtrack. Then we cut to Eva's colossal funeral procession in Buenos Aires, also to a huge musical soundtrack.
You begin to suspect that the leading principle behind this work is that Bigger is Better, a suspicion that takes no time in being confirmed. To what purpose? To give us a musical biography of the young woman with a shady past who climbs methodically the social ladder, sleeps with increasingly important people, reaches the all-powerful military caste and finally snares Colonel Juan Domingo Peron. They married in 1945. She was 26, he was 50.
If you've seen any documentaries about Eva Peron, you'll notice that the film does not invent facts too much the way most older Hollywood biopics did. Here several aspects of the couple's powerful partnership come through: the rise of Peron to his first Presidency (1946) and the aftermath; the initial mistrust of Eva by the Army; the unrelenting scorn by high society ; Evita's efforts to better the life of the masses; the adulation of the lower classes and many in the middle classes; the fiasco of her visits to Franco's Spain and to the Pope; and so on. It's all sketchy but sufficient. The main troubles with the film are merely Madonna, the music, the lyrics and the singing.
Much has been said about the parallels between Eva's and Madonna's rise to fame and power. It's a superficial comparison. More to the point is that Madonna, who will soon be 40, shows her age. She plays Eva at 15, then from ages 25 to 33. No matter how well the magic of makeup is used, it cannot shave off more than a few years. (In some shots she reminds me of Judy Holliday in bad hair days). Somehow Evita and Madonna never really merge, especially for those who are familiar with photographs and movies of the real Eva Peron. Still, it would be too much to ask of this kind of "historical musical" to come up with fully developed characters.
I suspect that Andrew Lloyd Webber is a composer whose works include very few "real" songs. In "Evita, " beyond "Don't Cry for Me Argentina, " and another tune that I forget, there's not much musical nourishment. The movie becomes something like a mega-music video directed by a latter-day Cecil B. De Mille. Its parts are interconnected by minimally harmonious recitatives that tell us the story. This makes the words more important than the music.
Unfortunately, the lyrics are flat. Think of those in "My Fair Lady, " "The Music Man, " "The King and I, " all so charming, witty, so well adapted to plots and characters, and you want to weep. Topping this, Madonna's singing has none of the strong, semi-belting approach of other stage Evitas.
Talking of weeping, the picture does its utmost to manipulate the public, to move it by building up big emotions (especially in the Casa Rosa balcony scenes), to come up with a hagiography of Evita, warts and all. It doesn't work for me. What does is the nice device of Chorus, played and sung by Antonio Banderas, the best thing in the film. He keeps popping up as a series of characters who make a running commentary and are quite critical of Evita. It comes, alas, to a final cop-out as Banderas joins the crowd and kisses Eva's casket.
Banderas's voice may not be great but it serves the purpose well. Jonathan Pryce's is small and insignificant, like his playing of Peron who looks rather dumb (I was conscious of his fake nose too) as he takes a back seat to Evita. The real Peron attained power through populism, through appeal to the "descamisados, " the shirtless people of the laboring classes. In the film his big public moments are whenever he takes off his jacket, in a silly equation of jacket and shirt. The other equation of Bigger with Better is equally silly, but still, this munificent, lavishly staged, very well shot production does have its striking visual moments.