Evita (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

As bold and dazzling a spectacle as Evita is, it's missing a soul. This brash, glitzy, energetic entertainment has the power to hold an audience enraptured, but, at the same time, there's a sense that what we're experiencing is just candy for the eyes and ears. In its own way, Evita is much like this past summer's blockbusters -- lots of flash and pizzazz, but very little beneath the surface. Anyone expecting more than loud music and boisterous musical numbers will be disappointed. Evita, even more than the stage show upon which it is based, is light on characters and even lighter on historical facts.

When it first hit Broadway in 1978, the play Evita was described as the most cinematic of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals. Despite that appellation, it has taken nearly twenty years for the story to make the stage-to-screen transition. Along the way, a number of well-known and highly respected directors, including Francis Ford Coppola, Richard Attenborough, and, most recently, Oliver Stone (who receives a screenplay credit due to Writers' Guild rules, even though none of his script has been retained), have unsuccessfully tackled the project. Finally, Alan Parker, whose previous music-laden movie credits include Fame and The Commitments, has completed the job using an unlikely cast that includes veteran actor Jonathan Pryce, international heartthrob Antonio Banderas, and, of course, Madonna in the title role.

Only the bare facts of Evita Peron's life have been retained for the film. As in the stage musical, she is represented as an heroic figure -- sometimes vain and self-serving, but rarely harsh or manipulative. This doesn't necessarily agree with the historical record, but it makes for better cinema. Likewise, Jonathan Pryce's Juan Peron is played as far more amiable than the actual dictator who took control of Argentina during the mid-'40s.

Eva Duarte (or, as she was better known, Evita) was born in 1919, the bastard child of a man who perished when she was seven. Thirty-three years after her birth, Evita, then the wife of Argentina's President, Juan Peron, died of cancer. The film, which opens with a flash forward to Evita's funeral, takes us from the day in 1926 when she places flowers upon her father's casket to the time when thousands of mourners file past her own still form. In between, she uses an affair with a singer (Jimmy Nail) to enable a move from her family's rural home to Buenos Aires, where she eventually becomes Peron's wife. Once he takes over the country, she attempts to apply her newfound power to the task of bettering the lot of Argentina's women and lower classes.

Evita tells Evita's story almost entirely in song (spoken lines are few and far between), making it more of an opera than a traditional musical. There are several familiar tunes (most notably, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina"), but much of the dialogue is delivered in recitatives, which occasionally seem awkward. Nevertheless, in those instances when Evita reaches its musical stride, with a full orchestra accompanying Madonna's strong, clear voice, this movie soars. Unfortunately, in the end, it always comes back to Earth.

The production design is excellent, as one would expect from such an ambitious project. From the streets of Buenos Aires to the interior of Peron's house, the film's look is composed with near- perfect attention to detail. Crowd scenes -- and there are many -- are handled expertly. Madonna's numerous, varied costumes add a further splash of color and style to a movie whose only serious fault lies in the shallowness of its narrative.

We never learn more about Evita's characters than is absolutely necessary. They don't become either three-dimensional or especially sympathetic. Although Madonna is an excellent singer, her emoting skills are limited. There's little depth to her Evita, and this robs the story of a portion of its power. The script is also surprisingly unambitious. Evita concentrates on the big musical numbers while virtually ignoring the sung, connecting words that provide opportunities for character interaction and development. Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Carrington), who is certainly capable of giving a strong performance, is wasted. Only towards the end is he given more to do than play second fiddle to Madonna.

If there's a real surprise in Evita, it's the strength of Antonio Banderas' performance. Playing a sort of one-man Greek chorus, he fills the role of narrator with an impossible-to-miss sardonic quality. Banderas' Che gives the film an edge, and Evita's few negative qualities come to light through his numbers. Even though Banderas doesn't have Madonna's vocal ability, he acquits himself well enough when it comes to singing, and his acting is the best that it's been since he parted ways with Pedro Almoldovar (after Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!).

A great deal has been written about whether Evita will be able to revive the musical genre, especially when coupled with Woody Allen's new effort, Everyone Says I Love You. Obviously, it's impossible to give an answer now, but if this film strikes box office gold (which seems possible, with Disney plugging it so relentlessly), more musicals will follow. Hopefully, anything in the works will combine the artistry and spectacle of Evita with a stronger story and better-defined characters. As it stands, this is solid entertainment, but the potential exists for something richer and more satisfying.

Evita (United States, 1996)

Director: Alan Parker
Cast: Madonna, Antonio Banderas, Jonathan Pryce, Jimmy Nail
Screenplay: Alan Parker and Oliver Stone
Cinematography: Darius Khondji
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice
U.S. Distributor: Hollywood Pictures
Run Time: 2:14
U.S. Release Date: 1996-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1