Not Saluting, but Waving

Michael Wood

  • Evita directed by Alan Parker
  • The Making of ‘Evita’ by Alan Parker
    Boxtree, 127 pp, £12.99, December 1996, ISBN 0 7522 2264 3
  • In My Own Words by Eva Perón, translated by Laura Dail
    New Press, 120 pp, $8.95, November 1996, ISBN 1 56584 353 3
  • Santa Evita by Tomás Eloy Martínez, translated by Helen Lane
    Doubleday, 371 pp, £15.99, January 1997, ISBN 0 385 40875 7

Nothing became her life like the remaking of it, but there were so many remakes. The latest stars Madonna, but the earliest starred Eva María Duarte herself. Or was that María Eva Ibarguren? She was María Eva Duarte de Perón on her marriage certificate, but then she also took three years off her age on that occasion. Some of this is easily unravelled, and a number of the remakes are easy to name: country kid to city girl, dancer to actress, brunette to blonde, actress to politician, President’s wife to secular saint. But none of this is easy to explain, and all of it turns to myth at the slightest touch. Even her body had its long adventures: laboriously embalmed at her death in 1952, it began its mysterious travels when Perón fell in 1955, was dug up in Italy in 1971, although Perón didn’t take it back with him to Argentina when he was reinstalled in 1973. That act of piety was left to his widow, his second wife Isabel, who became President in 1974 and had Eva Perón’s corpse buried (at last) in a Buenos Aires cemetery.

We are probably not going to be able to sort out the order of the first names, but the second names are not as much of a problem as they look, although they certainly symbolised a lasting pain for their owner. The girl, born near the little town of Los Toldos in 1919, was illegitimate and her mother was called Juana Ibarguren. The father was called Juan Duarte, and like many Latin American men before and after him, had two families, one legal and one on the side: not so much philandering as double domesticity. The rather died when the girl was seven, and his second family was not allowed to attend the funeral – or, in some accounts, only the children of that family were allowed to attend. This is an important part of Eva lore, often presented as one of the sources of her sympathy for the poor and excluded, and is faithfully represented in the movie, where the little girl gets to weep on her father’s coffin before she is thrown out of the church. You will not be surprised to hear that the film cuts straight from this scene to Eva’s own, vast funeral cortège, shot in Budapest in a sumptuous style which suggests a cross between early Eisenstein and late Cecil B. De Mille. There are fine pictures of this and many other scenes in The Making of ‘Evita’. The movie looks great in the book, and pretty good on the screen. Its looks are not its problem. The point of the juxtaposition of the funerals, I take it, is to lead us into pathos, or into irony if the pathos won’t work. The lonely mourner becomes the immensely mourned. A kind of triumph, but more sorrowful than consoling, since dead, the images also remind us, is dead.

There is a lot of dying in the film, and death, in spite of what you might think, is what makes its emphasis so uncertain. It opens in a cinema, where a romantic movie is interrupted for the announcement of Eva Perón’s death, in the now famous words: ‘At 20 hours 25, the Spiritual Head of the Nation passed into immortality.’ The whole cinema, peopled entirely, it seems, by working-class couples, starts to weep. Or rather, the women weep, and their men fold them compassionately into their arms. Just as you are thinking this is all too much, even by the most liberal standards of mawkishness, particularly since the film has hardly started, and we don’t know anything about the dead person who is arousing all this grief, the camera finds another kind of face, stony, unmoved, or if he is moved, disgusted. It is that of a single man: Antonio Banderas, the man who will haunt the film as our delegate and Evita’s counterpart, the incarnation of everyone who doesn’t believe in her myth but can’t stop following her around. This is an imaginative device, and ought to work well. For the commentating Che Guevara of the stage musical Alan Parker has substituted a ubiquitous, many-roled Argentinian ‘bloke’ (the colloquial che is not really translatable because it is used where the parallel words are not used in other languages, but it means something like ‘pal’, or ‘mate’, or ‘buddy’, as in ‘Buddy, can you spare a dime,’ or ‘No skin off my nose, mate,’ or ‘Pal Joey’), who appears wherever Evita goes, and sometimes where she doesn’t. He is a waiter, a society gent, a marching militant, a man in a bar, a mourner, a journalist and a movie projectionist. The device doesn’t work, though, and I’m not quite sure why. I have two guesses. The appearance of the figure becomes too predictable, excludes almost everything else. The camera leaves Evita ostensibly to show a crowd or a setting, but it always finds Banderas. The effect is to dissolve the crowd, and bleach the settings. You begin to look for Banderas in every scene, because you know he’s got to be there; it’s like a puzzle or a game, or a tic you can’t take your eyes off. My other guess has to do with Banderas himself. He doesn’t sing badly, and he looks appropriately butch in general, but he has only one facial expression, a virtuous, looming scowl. After a while, you think this must be the school play. The teacher is saying: try that again now, with a little more sincerity.

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