'Madonna out, Evita lives!'

 

IN the two years following Eva Peron's lingering death in 1952, the Vatican received some letters attributing to her various miracles and urging that she be declared a saint. The Argentine writer Tomas Eloy Martinez recalls in his bestseller, Santa Evita, that in the villages near where he grew up, many people thought she was an emissary of God and peasants used to see her face in the clouds".

In choosing to make a film about Eva Peron, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Parker may have bitten off more than they can chew. They are about to shoot in Argentina a film about a woman whom half the country believes to be a saint and the other half a whore, starring a woman about whom many Argentines are similarly divided. The similarities do not end there both Evita and Madonna are bottle blondes, both Catholics, both mistresses of their own images, both enamoured of Hollywood and both failed film actresses though Mad on na hopes that playing Evita will change all that.

Why Evita is so loved and hated has to do with the society in which she lived. Argentina in the 1930s was one of the richest, most sophisticated and unequal countries in the world. Landed aristocrats sent their children to school in England and France and inspired the French expression riche comme un Argentin.

Evita erupted from nowhere and by mobilising millions of "the dispossessed" reached the pinnacle of power and influence. Raw and on cultured, she used the same jewels, the same couturiers and the same institutions as the rich and flaunted them in their faces.

Buenos Aires "Madonna Out, Evita lives" is daubed in huge letters beside the airport road leading into the city. The Peronists have a tradition of conducting hate campaigns by graffiti. The slogan, inspired by Peronism's far right Evitista wing rallies a group of fanatics who some fear could disrupt the filming. The controversy has hit Argentina's front pages and, in the words of a daily Clarin headline, has put "Madonna against the wall".

The crusade is being led by Marta Rivadera, a Peronist MP from President Carlos Menems La Rioja province, who has gone so far as to propose a decree declaring Madonna, Alan Parker, Antonio Banderas and the rest as personae non grata.

Cecilia Szperling, an Argentine writer living in the capital, explains why passions are inflamed For many poor Argentines, the truly heroic figure of Peronism was less General Peron than his wife, Evita, who befriended the poor and died while still young and beautiful. She is a real Madonna for them, while Madonna the rock star is known as a virtual symbol of prostitution. They believe Madonna will demean the sacred image of Evita."

DARK HAIRED Eva Duarte arrived in Buenos Aires from a poor village in Junin province in 1935. She was illegitimate, malnourished, barely literate and with poor diction but she had ambitions as an actress. As payment for early roles she accepted a cup of coffee. Eventually she won a contract to do bit parts in radio soap operas.

In 1944 she met Juan Domingo Peron, who was labour minister in the military government, bewitched him, and became First Lady in 1946. With her devotion, both to her president husband and to her descamisados (shirtless ones), she was, for eight years, the most adored and most hated woman in Latin America.

In the newsreels she is electrifying as she addresses the crowds, her passion uncontrolled, her screen presence comparable to that of Marilyn Monroe. She died of womb cancer aged 33, Argentina's first internationally famous figure.

The summer heat that traditionally slows Buenos Aires to a torpor has had little effect this January. One observer describes the city as in the grip of collective hysteria. Television debates rage in which Parker's film is condemned for being made, not only by foreigners, but by the English, who most loathed Evita when she was alive. For it was Britain, traditionally Argentina's biggest beef market, that most objected when Peron squeezed the cattle owning aristocracy.

An Argentine actor Victor Bo, a friend of President Carlos Menem, insists he will make a rival version of Evita's story that will star the country's leading soap opera diva, Andrea del Boca. But even an Argentine version of Evita's story would be more likely to perpetuate the myth than tell the truth, says Andres di Tella, an Argentine filmmaker who won an award for his film about left wing Peronism. Now making a film about early Argentine radio and television, he sought out veterans of Radio Belgrano, where Evita worked.

Madonna flew into town last weekend amid a security operation that whisked her to the Hyatt Hotel, where her huge

Screaming fans crowded the foyer. One youngster took off her T shirt to bare a midriff sporting words of adulation. Even among the young, the myth of Evita still exerts its force. "I love Evita," a member of the Lucky Star fan club confesses. If Evil a were alive, she'd be Madonna's biggest fan." Madonna herself has not shown her face, preferring to receive a string of experts and pick their brains about the real Evita. Before leaving New York, she issued a statement that sought to please opposing camps. "Eva Peron was a source of inspiration to me. I have no intention of representing her with anything other than great respect ... She married a fascist and was totally unjust with some sections of society."

Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical has never been seen in Argentina, boycotted by successive rulers as defaming national dignity. But damning reports from government ministers who saw it on trips abroad have convinced the Argentine public that their heroine is portrayed as little more than a jewel bedecked prostitute who stashed away vast quantities of the nation's wealth in Swiss banks.

Argentina's slums, the villas miserias where Evita grew up, also remain unchanged. But documentary realism not being part of the Evita project the producers have recreated a new slum for the cameras. They built it in the mighty Liniers livestock market on the edge of the capital where mounted gauchos with walkie talkies clip smartly amid the finest cattle in the world and the authentic stench of horse shit wafts over the set.