The staggering anticipation surrounding Evita, Alan Parker’s bombastically glossy musical epic, has something to do with the material itself — Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s famous rock opera from the late ’70s — and a lot more to do with our desire to see Madonna finally connect on the big screen. About a third of the way into Evita, she gets her chance, as Eva Duarte, the future diva-saint of Argentina, throws herself at Juan Perón, the charismatic army general-turned-politician who’s fast on his way to taking over the country.

As the two retreat to Eva’s bedroom, they sing the imploring duet ”I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You.” It’s the prettiest number we’ve heard so far, if only because its wistful melody line makes more than a passing nod to ”Yesterday.” With the camera gliding around them, Madonna’s rapt, powerstruck Eva stares at Jonathan Pryce’s wryly imperious Juan and begins to sing. Is she aflame with love, seduced by Perón’s populist bravado? Or is she a visionary manipulator, affixing herself to a rising star? Technically, Madonna’s singing is beautiful — elegant, silky, refined. Yet there’s no fire, no twinkle of ambitious joy, to her performance. Her face is fixed, almost tranquilized — a porcelain mask. It’s hard to tell what’s going on in her. We’re watching the defining moment of Eva Perón’s life, and it looks for all the world like an upscale champagne commercial.

If there’s a role Madonna seemed born to play, it was Eva Perón — or, at least, the sexy, ruthless, camp-myth Eva Perón at the center of Evita, a musical that delights in holding up its heroine to the glitzy distorting mirror of showbiz. First produced on the London stage in 1978 (and then, a year later, on Broadway), Evita was ahead of its time in its chic fascination with fame, with the power of glamour, and with the once-novel idea of insatiable feminine ambition. Evita, fashion-plat goddess of the proletariat! Dead of cancer at 33 — but really martyred by her pitiless drive! Politics as superstardom! Demagoguery as high kitsch!

It all looks more than a trifle old hat now. Still, Evita could have worked had it been staged as larger-than-life spectacle. The film was once set to be made by Oliver Stone (he retains a coscreenwriting credit), and a director like Stone might have tapped the lurid grandstanding appeal of a musical whose heroine merged the core qualities of Eleanor Roosevelt, Leni Riefenstahl, and Madonna herself. The way Alan Parker has directed Evita, however, it’s just a sluggish, contradictory mess, a drably ”realistic” Latin-revolution music video driven by a soundtrack of mediocre ’70s rock.

The real challenge of making a movie out of Evita isn’t that it’s all songs; it’s that the songs contain very little dramatic action. As Eva defies Argentina’s strict Catholic-class-system hierarchy, rising from illegitimate peasant to mistress of a traveling tango singer to dance-hall girl to high-fashion pinup model to radio and movie star, Parker cobbles together scenes in the sluggishly dissociated, Edward Scissorhands-goes-to-the-editing-table style of MTV circa 1984. There are really just three characters: Eva, Juan, and a floating narrator named Che (Antonio Banderas, who, alone among the principals, sings with defiant theatrical zest). Almost everything that happens is naggingly abstract. Eva becomes the controversial toast of Buenos Aires. The establishment disapproves of her relationship with Juan. Juan goes to jail, is released after a popular uprising, and gets elected president. Eva makes her celebrated Rainbow Tour of Europe. These aren’t scenes — they’re concepts for scenes. Even an actor as supple as Pryce is stranded; his performance consists of little more than flashing a wily crocodile grin and, in a ritually ”suave” man-of-the-people gesture, removing his sport coat. The show’s signature theme, the lugubrious anthem ”Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” might be the emblem of its muddled impersonality: It’s Eva crooning a tender love ballad to… the peasant masses.

By the time we arrive at the centerpiece number, ”A New Argentina,” the crowning irony of Evita — that Eva champions the people by celebrating herself — has been steamrolled. What the movie needed was a star who could put across the grand paradoxes of Eva Perón’s life through the sheer power of her personality. But Madonna, astonishingly, turns out not to be that star. She is one of the most vital pop performers of her time, yet in this, her ultimate bid for Hollywood respectability, she neutralizes her most magnetic qualities: the teasing eroticism, the unashamed soul-force vulgarity. Nakedly desperate to be taken seriously as an actress, Madonna plays Evita not as an imaginative extension of her own persona, which is what the film all but cried out for, but as a kind of ghostly sanctified Other: passive, ”refined,” not quite there. She drains the life out of herself, and drains it out of Evita, too. C-

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