For all the sound and fury of Evita, I had a tough time staying awake.Visually, the movie is gorgeous. Director Alan Parker and the great cinematographer Darius Khondji (who shot Seven) make glorious use of the wide screen. But I’d rather see a crappy-looking film with some heart and soul. Evita comes dangerously close to being a parade of beautiful hollow images.
That said, I doubt any director could have made a good movie from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s baffling and shallow musical. Except for Cats, which has T.S. Eliot’s poetry and some luscious costumes and lights going for it, Lloyd Webber’s work leaves me cold. Those who enjoy his brand of pompous pop may not mind the numbingly repetitive Evita; at times, I felt as if I were trapped inside a jukebox that only plays three songs.
The basic story whizzes by. The poor but ambitious Eva Duarte (Madonna) sleeps her way to the top, marrying Juan Perón (Jonathan Pryce), future president of Argentina. Eva becomes a sort of ab-fab representative of the people, though the movie suggests that it’s merely another career move by a woman who craves love and acceptance. Meanwhile, the cynical narrator Ché (Antonio Banderas) keeps rolling his eyes and singing a series of “Get a load of this” commentaries.
We get a load of it, all right. Alan Parker actually can do small, enjoyable human stories (Shoot the Moon, Birdy, The Commitments); he works best with material that doesn’t require him to push so hard. Here he’s in his overbearing razzle-dazzle mode, where slick technique and surface excitement are everything. After about an hour you get jaded: “Gee, another painstakingly composed crowd shot.” To be fair to Parker, Evita probably couldn’t have been filmed any other way, which raises the question of whether it should have been filmed at all.
It’s no compliment to Madonna to say that this is the role she’s been waiting for. She’s in decent voice, and she handles her deathbed scenes deftly, but most of her performance is a pose — again, a problem originating with the material. Eva is vogueing through history. A real actress might have brought some slyness and depth to Eva’s machinations. Banderas (who sings surprisingly well) and Pryce seem to be having more fun; unlike Madonna, they don’t feel they have anything to prove to us, and they have a natural elegance that the expensively-attired star lacks.
Yet the screening I attended was packed, and there was scattered applause at the end — something I haven’t heard at a movie in years. It’s easy to see why. Evita is noisy and blunt, and it presents itself as a serious musical epic (the illusion is often trashed by Lloyd Webber’s dated disco-rock orchestrations). No question, it’s the event movie of the season. The applause also says that Madonna is now respectable. The ridiculed sex priestess has become a pop icon your grandma could approve of. You don’t have to like Madonna to be disturbed by the homogenization our culture imposes on provocative women. In Evita, the controversial but redeemed Eva Perón ascends to Hollywood good-girl heaven, and Madonna is right beside her.