Although the music of Evita remains as popular and compelling as ever, Parker says that his primary motivation in making the film was to mine the story’s mother lode of drama, which is based upon the real-life tale of Eva Duarte, a peasant girl who rose to power after marrying politician Juan Domingo Peron, who later became president of Argentina. Narrated by Che (Antonio Banderas), a sardonic Brechtian Everyman, the screen version is both an inspiring and tragic account of Eva’s short but eventful life, which began in 1919 and spanned three turbulent decades.
The story, as related by Che, is classic tragedy. The illegitimate daughter of a penniless farmer in the tiny Pampas town of Junin, located west of Buenos Aires, young Eva (Madonna) dreams of escaping to the big city. She gets her chance in her teens, when opportunity arrives in the form of a popular tango singer named Agustin Magaldi (Jimmy Nail). After charming the traveling minstrel, Eva accompanies him to Buenos Aires, where she bucks long odds to become a radio and film actress of some renown. Wending her way into high-society circles, Eva soon strikes up a romance with rising politician Juan Peron (Jonathan (Pryce), but their relationship is scandalized by members of both the political establishment and the military, leading to Peron’s brief arrest and the populist revolt of October 17, 1945.
The pair decide to marry, and with the ebullient and inspirational Eva at his side, Peron is elected president. Eva quickly establishes herself as an ardent supporter of Peronism, hawking democracy on her famed “Rainbow Tour” of Europe. With the birth of the Eva Peron Foundation and the Peronist Women’s Party, the myth of ‘Saint Eva” begins to grow, and she becomes the people’s choice to run as a vice presidential candidate. This development sparks dissent by the military and other politicians, who are alarmed by her increasing influence, but Eva is forced to renounce the vice presidency when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her subsequent death in 1952, at the age of 33, is mourned in heart-rending fashion by the masses, who deify her and thereby ensure the iconic immortality of their “Evita.”
In addressing this saga, Parker sought to avoid the usual expectations for a film whose narrative is told solely via musical means. There is no spoken dialogue in Evita, but the director approached the film as he would any dramatic picture. “This is a large-scale epic, a dramatic and political film that happens to be sung all the way through,” Parker says. “But the decisions that we made were always based first and foremost upon the dramatic elements; the music was just something that was there. We never compromised anything because of the music. In that regard, I believe Evita is different from most other musicals that have been made. If you look at the history of musical films — particularly in recent years, when they haven’t succeeded — it’s almost as if at certain points [viewers] must put a different computer chip in their brain that says, ‘Oh, now they’re doing the musical bit.’ That denies the normal instincts, which — if you come from a dramatic film background, as I have — involve questions such as ‘What’s dramatically truthful and powerful?’ and ‘What’s cinematically interesting?’. Those were the questions we had to ask and answer before we dealt with the various pieces of music.”
Parker’s strategy was enthusiastically endorsed by the cinematographer he recruited to shoot the film: Darius Khondji, AFC, who has risen to prominence with a string of impressive-looking films that include Delicatessen, Before the Rain (with additional photography by Manuel Teran), The City of Lost Children, Seven (which earned him an ASC Award nomination; see AC Oct. 1995) and Stealing Beauty (See AC June 1996). Parker initially approached Khondji because his most frequent photographic collaborators, Peter Biziou, BSC and Michael Seresin, BSC, were unavailable. He had been impressed with the cinematographer’s work on Delicatessen, and soon found that Khondji was both personable and willing to adapt his working methods. “Before I met Darius, I thought he was going to be very serious, but he wasn’t like that at all; he’s got a wonderful sense of humor,” Parker relates. “This project was difficult for Darius in that I always work with the same people, including my camera operator, Mike Roberts. Darius was very gracious in taking all of that in stride. Also, I always use the English system [in which the camera operator plays a prominent role in compositional decision]. I don’t think it’s necessarily better than the American system [in which the director of photography has more influence over both lighting and composition]; it’s just the way I’ve been doing things for 25 years. I speak directly to the operator with regard to the composition of the shot, but Darius was always involved in the discussions.”