DOROTHY PARKER, on a tour of William Randolph Hearst's gaudy mansion San Simeon, noticed an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary above the door to his mistress's bedroom, and was moved to verse satire. Lightly adapted, Mrs Parker's tart lines slide quite snugly over the film the publicists (if no one else) have termed the Movie Event Of The Year, Alan Parker's Evita (PG): "Upon my honour / I saw Madonna / Occupy the niche / Of that crashing bore / The high- class whore / Of the world's worst son of a bitch." And she occupies it gracefully, all things considered. Madonna's performance - adequate acting, more than adequate singing, nimble footwork - is among the very best things in a film which, for all one's advance misgivings, isn't altogether contemptible. Apart from the music and lyrics, that is. They're tripe.

If, like me, you are one of those who had intended to go to your grave without suffering through a complete work by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of the milder sensations Evita will inspire in you is bafflement. What do they see in it, those squillions and squillions of theatregoers who have made Sir Andrew a premiere-league moneybags? Apart from the big number, "Don't Cry for Me..." (emetic enough in the straight version, and flogged to death in several even less bearable mutations across the whole show), there aren't any memorable tunes; it's not witty and romantic like an old-style musical, or sly and mordant like the latter-day kind; and the storyline is a simple rising arc from poverty to power to conveniently early demise, uncomplicated by any juicy sub-plot or unexpected reversals. It's far too pompous to be any fun, and too unreflective (the polite word for "dim") to have any claims to substance.

Given such a huge slab of lard for his raw material, Parker hasn't disgraced himself, and the first few minutes of Evita lull you into believing that the experience might not be such torture after all. Parker opens his film - natty self-reflexiveness - in an Argentinean cinema one night in 1952. The on-screen audience waxes irate as the romantic fluff they are watching, and smoking furiously along to, stops in mid-reel, and they barrack the manager until he explains the reason for the halt: Eva Peron is dead. They weep and wail and gnash their teeth, and you feel like joining in, since an excruciatingly loud Heavy Sausage guitar chord slices across the sound-track to enact their collective grief.

Then come two funerals: the modest rural ceremony for little Evita's father back in 1926, from which she is excluded on grounds of illegitimacy, and the massive procession - troops, carriages, mourners strewing the air with petals - leading to Mrs Peron's lying-in-state. (Ah yes, how far the poor country girl came in just a couple of decades...) Parker marshals this crowd scene most impressively, as he does the dozens of other processions, rallies and armed riots which trudge across the screen every four or five minutes, and Darius Khondji's cinematography is luscious. If you swoon at the sight of marching, chanting people and your videos of October or Triumph of the Will are wearing out, invest in a ticket for Evita and some cotton wool without delay.

But, as Granny used to say, after the Lord Mayor's show comes the corporation dustcart. Just when the production values have resigned you to swallowing Evita with a straight face, it all comes crashing down into farce as the singing starts. The preposterously handsome Antonio Banderas, who flits throughout the action in a variety of disguises as the narrator figure Che (rumour has it that this role has sometimes been identified as a student- age Che Guevara, though there's no obvious hint of his identity here), suddenly leaps up scowling from his bar-stool, and makes a heroic attempt to seem as if he's bursting with patriotic indignation while chirping a silly little cod-Latin tune with tinkling rhymes - "Don't Cry..." in its least winning avatar. Since the rest of the film is so short on laughs, this one is probably unintentional.

The rest you either know, or can predict. A series of montages, glued together with the odd dramatic scene, shows us how Eva worked her way up Argentinean society on her back, from the bed of a sordid guitar player (Jimmy Nail, with an oiled-back travelling-salesman's coiffure that emphasises the remarkable development of his ears) to the bed of the opportunistic soldier who is soon to be his country's latest dictator, Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce, whose own hairdo appears to be made from black rubber, cut, possibly, from the tyre that has been placed around his midriff to bulk out his spare frame). Argentina's upper classes and military express their disapproval of this upstart, in clipped speaking songs reminiscent of the Ascot Gavotte from My Fair Lady minus the humour, but Mrs P wins the undying affection of the unwashed with a series of charity stunts, thus becoming what we would nowadays call their Queen of Hearts. Then she sickens, grows pale and spectre-thin, and dies.

There's little mystery as to why Madonna would crave a vehicle like this, and little point labouring the parallels between her vaulting ambition and Evita's, though someone with a sharper eye for pop history might profitably dwell on the curious and sustained Hispanic note in this Italian-American's songs: "La Isla Bonita" and so on. It's an obvious transitional point in her career, from sex bomb to mature actress to President of the US (the Hispanic vote is going to be significant next century), and she seizes it by the scruff of the neck and wrestles it to the ground. It's not great acting or anything like, but you could never have foreseen the sheer application she brings to the job from, say, her insouciant little role in Desperately Seeking Susan, the one film appearance most people are willing to admit was passable: come to think of it, "desperate seeking" isn't a bad description of her attitude throughout Evita.

The price she has paid to act the dictator's squeeze is high, though. She's had to subdue her real, if rather chillingly force-grown gifts to a musical style in which she's manifestly not at home. (It doesn't help that the dramatic context for her show-stopper is nonsensical. If you've never seen the show you might imagine "Don't Cry..." as a deathbed aria or some such; actually, she croons it to the adoring populace at the height of her triumph. Why?) Though some people consider her triumphs as a sign of cultural rot every bit as dismaying as the wealth of Sir A, there's nothing perplexing about Madonna's success; she's brought the world some great pop songs, and her more nearly transcendent

moments in Evita are utterly dull compared with her videos. It would be more enjoyable to watch "Vogue" 45 consecu-tive times than Evita once, and the mind might also be less inclined to wander off in search of precedents for such folly. Why does it sound familiar, the idea of a musical about dodgy politics? Ah, of course. I walked out of the cinema humming a catchy melody: it was "Springtime for Hitler".

Could it have been mischief on the part of the distributors to re-release another through-sung musical, Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (PG, 1964), in the same week as Evita? It certainly seems so, because Demy's film is rich in all the things Parker's so conspicuously lacks: charm, delicacy, good humour and sentiment that stays, just about, on the right side of slush. Oh, and a swoony score by Michel Legrand. From a very slight girl-loses-boy premise, Demy conjured a tart modern fairy story - faintly silly and more than faintly camp, but almost impossible to resist. Catherine Deneuve, at her most luminously fragile, plays the 17-year-old Genevieve, who is made pregnant by her boyfriend Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) on the eve of his military service; she waits patiently for his return for a while, before yielding to the honourable marriage offer of an older, richer beau. This restored print of the film, which until recently had faded to pink, brings back the hallucinatory vividness of its colours - how many films tempt you into gazing greedily at the wallpaper? It modestly offers its viewers something the cinema has almost forgotten: delight.

Parents in search of slightly less mechanised fare than the spotted-dog movie, and emotionally secure enough not to mind a fable which panders to their children's sense of injured superiority, could do a lot worse than try Roald Dahl's Matilda (PG), directed by Danny De Vito, who also acts and narrates. Matilda, agreeably played by Mara Wilson, is a six- year-old prodigy with a taste for the prose of Herman Melville and the power of psychokinesis, like a pre-pubescent Carrie. She seeks an escape from her repellent progenitors (De Vito and his real-life spouse Rhea Perlman) in school life, only to find that her local primary is an American counterpart to St Custard's, and is run by an ogre of a woman (Pam Ferris, aka Ma Larkin) with the body of a Russian weightlifter and the childcare skills of Herod. De Vito directs the film without an ounce of subtlety - massive close-ups on gurning faces a speciality - which is why the little blighters will lap it up. Bah, humbug.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 10.