(*homocinematically inclined)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Tarnished Singing Saints

The 1996 film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice's Evita wasn't a blockbuster but, as the first big-screen musical in some time, did fairly well at the box office and racked up a few Golden Globes and an Oscar. Now out on Blu-rayfor the first time in a special 15th anniversary edition (and also simultaneously enjoying a Broadway revival), Evita has aged exceedingly well and makes more recent musical adaptations like Chicago, Hairspray and the current Rock of Ages look puny in comparison.

Evita tells the story of Eva Peron, wife of Argentinean dictator Juan Peron during the 1940-50's.  Various directors tried and failed to adapt the show into a film since its 1980 debut, with such actresses as Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli (!) and Meryl Streep in discussions at various points to play the title role.  Finally, Alan Parker (who had previously helmed such diverse movie musicals as Bugsy Malone, Fame and Pink Floyd's The Wall) succeeded by casting the one woman truly born to play Evita: Madonna.  News of Madonna's casting filled many fans of the stage version with dread, based on the various poor performances she had given in movies.  However, the part was a natural for the dance diva who had endured many of the same criticisms that Evita herself had.  Also like Evita, Madonna continues to enjoy a popular appeal among the masses that ensures her a permanent place in pop history.

Apart from its magnificent song score, the greatest artistic achievement of Evita -- both on stage and film -- is in presenting its subject as both a saint and, to put it delicately, a whore. While depicting Eva Peron as having considerable talent in the areas of leadership and diplomacy, for which she is still revered in Argentina more than half a century after her death, she is also shown to be a masterful manipulator who slept her way to the top and stole from her people.  She certainly gave her public what they wanted, but she and her husband made them pay handsomely for it behind their backs.  Eva's early death from cancer foreshadowed the demise of the Peron era but also served to enshrine her as Evita, a popular saint of the people whose cult endures to this day.

As anyone familiar with Madonna's career knows, similarities between her life and Eva's are far from coincidental.  Madonna has walked in Eva's shoes, if not in political circles then in cultural ones.  Both Madonna and Evita have utilized principles of Catholic ritual and popular devotion to get where they got. While both women have been vilified at times for actions some have seen more as desecration than reverence, both can rightly be considered legendary.

Evita, the musical, can be frustrating for some viewers for its ultimate refusal to either canonize or condemn its protagonist.  Instead, it shows her simply as she was perceived by a variety of foes and admirers, warts and all.  The film adaptation is able to present both more detail and more nuance than the original stage version, and is superbly photographed by Darius Khondji and -- as is especially apparent on Blu-ray -- impeccably edited by Gerry Hambling.  I wish the movie had more full-on dance numbers, but a fresh viewing reveals it as one of the last large-scale productions with a literal cast of thousands before digital imaging took over.  Supporting cast members Antonio Banderas (perhaps in his sexiest screen role) and Jonathan Pryce are also excellent.

From the perspective of traditional Catholic anthropology, each human person embodies both the qualities that define a saint and the qualities that define a sinner.  Just like the rest of us, the true nature of Evita's soul (and Madonna's) can be known only to God.

Also new on Blu-rayin a special combo package is the delightful 1992 comedy-with-musical-numbers Sister Act and its unnecessary but still enjoyable sequel, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993).  Whoopi Goldberg headlines both (in a role originally written for Bette Midler) as a lounge singer-turned mob informant-turned erstwhile nun.  Maggie Smith, Kathy Najimy, Wendy Makenna and the late, great Mary Wickes shine as her fellow convent dwellers.

Reverend's Ratings:
Evita: A
Sister Act: B+
Sister Act 2: B-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

1 comment:

  1. Although we did really like Evita as a film, and my wife sang along to nearly every word (lucky me). I could never really get passed the whole madonna issue. I love her as a musical artist, but something about her acting just leave me feeling like something is lacking.