Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Classics: A Review of Evita By Lauren Ennis

The cold, dead, stare of a true politician
Biographies are unique films in that while they often attain critical success, they just as often fail to gain public favor. Due to their nature as historical works based in reality, there are few twists and turns that screenwriters can utilize to satisfy viewers when writing a biographical film. As a result, viewers often find biographies predictable and dry. In a few rare instances, however, filmmakers have managed to find unique ways to tell biographical tales which not only highlight the facts of the protagonists’ life, but also entertain viewers. One such film is the 1996 musical biography Evita which combines Broadway tunes with historical fact to tell the Cinderella-esque story of pampas peasant turned Argentine first lady, Eva Peron.

The story starts in an unusual way by beginning not with Eva’s (Madonna) birth, but instead with her funeral following her death of cervical cancer in 1952. The film’s everyman narrator, known only as Che (Antonio Banderas), watches the circus that Buenos Aires has become as its citizens react to the death of the equally loved and maligned first lady. The scene then flashes back to Eva’s poverty stricken childhood in the 1920’s as she is barred from attending her father’s funeral because of her illegitimacy. By juxtaposing her father’s funeral with her own, the filmmakers provide the audience with crucial insight into Eva’s character and the obsession with reaching the top of society that would define her life. The film then flashes ahead as Che reflects upon the events that led the peasant girl to become the infamous woman being mourned. Eager to leave behind the poverty of life in the slums, fifteen year old Eva seduces a touring tango singer (Jimmy Nail) in hopes of him bringing her to Buenos Aires with him. The singer reluctantly agrees to take her with him only to later reveal that he is married with children and abandon her when they reach the city. Alone and destitute, Eva embarks upon a series of affairs with increasingly wealthy men in order to survive. Through connections of one of her lovers she becomes a radio and B-film actress, which eventually brings her into contact with rising military officer, Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce). Knowing an opportunity when she sees one, Eva immediately attaches herself to Peron and uses her minor celebrity status to promote his political ambitions. With Eva’s help, Peron rises above imprisonment by the ruling regime and goes on to become Argentina’s president. Through the various highs and lows of Peron’s presidency, Eva remains a driving force in his administration, simultaneously becoming the most adored and despised woman in Argentine history in the process.

Based upon the musical of the same name, Evita takes an original approach to telling Eva’s story by relating the facts of her life through song. Following several successes with composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyricist Tim Rice was searching for a subject for his next project when he heard a radio broadcast about the tumultuous life of Eva Peron. Fascinated, Rice became determined to write his next musical about her. Unfortunately for Rice, however, Webber and the production’s director, Hal Prince, were not as enamored with the Argentine first lady as he was (particularly considering England’s difficult relationship with Argentina), and proceeded to alter his original lyrics without his consent. The resulting production cast both Eva and Juan Peron in a darker light than Rice had intended and lent the show a critical tone. Although the Broadway show was a Tony Award winning hit, director Alan Parker decided to reinstate the original lyrics and take a more even-handed approach to his portrayal.

The perks of being a narrator
Despite its Broadway roots, Evita is anything but stage bound. The film relates over fifteen years in the life of one of history’s most controversial women without sacrificing any of the emotion and momentum that made the original stage production a success. The freedom of the screen enabled filmmakers to bring the story to vivid life by utilizing location sets and previously deleted scenes that had been deemed too difficult to stage. As a result, the film seamlessly places the story into the greater context of both Argentine and world history without requiring viewers to possess any prior historical knowledge to fully enjoy it. Unfortunately, while the film attempts to tell a more accurate account of Eva’s life, there are still various inaccuracies that were carried over from the original stage show, making the film more speculative entertainment than historical document.

One of the most common shortcomings of musicals is their tendency to decrease the emphasis upon acting and character development. In Evita, however, the cast manages to rise above this common pitfall and turns in uniformly excellent performances. Despite her previously panned roles, Madonna’s portrayal is both realistic and compelling as she perfectly captures the duality of the wounded childhood and hard as nails struggle that propel Eva’s story. Similarly, Antonio Banderas hits all the right notes as the by turns amused and outraged, but always cynical, Che. Jonathan Pryce’s understated performance strikes a perfect balance between relating the complicated political life of Juan Peron and allowing the story to remain focused upon Eva. Through their superb performances, the cast provides the film with the crucial foundation that it needs to suspend the audience’s disbelief long enough for the impressive songs and powerful story to take hold.

Through its combination of music and history, Evita provides viewers with insight into the life of one of the most polarizing political figures of the 20th century. While the film leaves the question of whether Eva the sinner or Evita the saint is the ‘real Eva Peron’, open to viewers, it nonetheless presents an emotionally engaging and musically mesmerizing modern Cinderella story. The film had this reviewer eager to learn more about its heroine and the myths surrounding her, and I hope that it will inspire some of its casual viewers to become aspiring history buffs. Join Eva to see what’s new in Buenos Aires and what it is that Argentina’s been crying about; this is one musical journey you won’t want to return home from.

That's right you bad girl, you vote for the Peronist Party


  1. I heard lots of people were pissed off that Madonna were pissed off when she was cast as Evita

  2. Oh yea, Argentina was seriously crying over that one; as was Liza Minnelli who never got over being passed over...I'll be waiting a comment on that one