Film & Television

‘Santa Evita’ Raises Questions About Power and Control

Although it would horrify any of my dear, departed social studies teachers (I’m sorry, Mr. Plass), my grasp of world history comes almost solely from musical theatre. I know more about the student uprising from Les Misérables than la grande révolution itself, which took place nearly half a century earlier. My knowledge about the Viet Nam war is limited to the plot of Miss Saigon. And, more recently, despite living in a town that prides itself on its colonial past, my early American education only came to life through the hip-hop lyrics of Hamilton.

So, it should come as no surprise that any and all awareness I have of the life and death of Eva Duarte de Perón is compliments of Sirs Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber. The aforementioned high school classes were sorely lacking in South American studies. But, I’ve seen Evita three times on stage and twice at the movies.

The Tony-, Olivier-, and Oscar-winning musical ends with a cryptic observation by narrator Che (we assume Guevara, although in real life there’s no evidence that the Cuban guerilla leader ever met Eva Perón):

Money was raised to build a tomb, a monument to Evita.

Only the pedestal was completed, and Evita’s body disappeared for 17 years.

This past week, on the 70th anniversary of Eva’s death, a new miniseries premiered on streaming subscription service Hulu. Santa Evita is based on Tomás Eloy Martinez’s bestselling novel of the same name. In seven 45-minute episodes, it dramatizes the long, strange journey of the beloved (and reviled) first lady of Argentina’s corpse. While that story is engrossing enough (and quite thrilling even though the heroine is already dead), Santa Evita also delivers a compelling and compassionate portrait of the woman known as “the spiritual leader of a nation.”

The series covers events spanning decades, from Ava’s childhood in the provinces and her career as a radio and eventually film actress, through her relationship with then Colonel Juan Perón, their marriage and his presidency, to her activism on behalf of women and workers, and her death at just 33 years of age. But, it’s not a typical biopic. It isn’t told chronologically, and the real story starts after Eva dies. Santa Evita is a mystery that comprises one corpse, multiple wax figures, several countries, and countless acts of worship (there were those who petitioned the Vatican to make Eva a saint) and desecration (on more than one occasion, her body is stripped, fondled, and otherwise defiled). 

Santa Evita is “based on a real-life story that’s almost impossible to believe.”

That quote is from Salma Hayek, one of Santa Evita’s executive producers. Although better known for her onscreen roles, Hayek’s production company Ventanarosa focuses on titles that provide opportunities for Latinos. These include the ABC series Ugly Betty as well as adaptations of novels by Hispanic authors Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Julia Alvarez.

This is perhaps a good time for a word of caution. Hulu defaults to an English-dubbed version of Santa Evita. The voiceovers are awkward and terribly overacted. In fact, after watching the first episode with its clumsy English soundtrack, I was just about ready to abandon. However, when I changed Hulu’s options to the original Spanish sound with English subtitles, the experience immediately improved, and I was able to watch the other six installments. And, I’m so glad I did.

Santa Evita is an elegant miniseries, making the most of top shelf production values, that showcase 120 actors, 1,300 extras, 40 locations in Buenos Aires, 80 vintage vehicles, and 150 period costumes. The series is written by Marcela Guerty and Pamela Rementaria, and directed by Rodrigo García and Alejandro Maci, who explained in an interview with Variety that the story is still relevant. “One thing which is truly arresting is the fetichism sparked by Eva Perón, which is highly contemporary. This is a woman who is appropriated in a perverse manner by an infinite number of men, all military. That’s now part of our contemporary conversation, which Martínez couldn’t have anticipated in a novel written in 1995. But the series opens up to this interpretation.”

The cast is excellent, especially Natalia Oreiro in the leading role of Eva. She is stunning, tall, slim, and famously blonde (although the actress has dark hair in real life). She somehow conveys strength and fragility at the same time. And, while her powers of persuasion are never in question, she is not the manipulative schemer we’re more familiar with in the performances of Patti LuPone and Madonna. This Eva genuinely cares about her people and one of her last requests to her husband is to make sure she isn’t forgotten.

Perón, played with authority by Dario Grandinetti, takes this to heart. But, he also sees the value of leveraging the working-class Argentines’ love for her to keep himself in office longer. He brings in an expert mortician, Dr. Ara (Francesc Orello), who insists, creepily, on working alone. Painstakingly embalmed, Eva’s preternaturally preserved body is used first as political propaganda, displayed at the Ministry of Labour — against the wishes of her devout Catholic mother — while a colossal monument is being built.

When Perón is ousted three years later, the new regime sees Evita as a dangerous symbol that could be used against them. She is placed in the protective care of Colonel Koenig, played by Ernesto Alterio, whose mental health deteriorates from obedience to obsession over the years he safeguards her. He surrounds himself with the worst officers he can find (so he can threaten them if he has to) and suffice it to say, some of his actions are truly vile. Fast forward to 1971 and investigative reporter Mariano (the engaging Diego Valásquez) receives a tip that the current administration plans to return her body to her husband in Spain. When he finally confronts Koenig, we learn what happened to the body — only to realize that Koenig who thought he had outsmarted everyone in his irrational need to control the dead first lady, has himself been outsmarted.

The concept of control brings up an interesting dichotomy here. Eva Perón, who is referred to by detractors as “the tyrant’s wife,” “the leech,” “the punta,” and “the mare,” has the power — even in death — to topple a successful military coup. In her life, she fought for (and won) suffrage for Argentine women among myriad other progressive causes. Yet, she had no power over her own body, whether ravaged by cervical cancer, worshipped by her followers, politicized by her husband, or abducted and abused by her post-mortem guardians.

Today, Evita remains a controversial but legendary figure. Yet, she lacked the most basic agency. There’s a message here that feels painfully relevant 70 years later.

Santa Evita is available on Hulu.


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