In the two years following Eva Peron's lingering death in 1952, the Vatican received some 40,000 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 Madonna 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 uncultured, 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 capitals 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 the daily Clarin's leading headline, has put "Madonna against the wall".
The crusade is being led by Marta Rivadera, a Peronist MP from President Carlos Menem's 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 demeanthe 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 film-maker 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.
"I spoke to a lot of people who knew Evita. They went on about how wonderful she was, but off camera they revealed horrible details of the fear she evoked. People are afraid of telling the truth; no one wants to speak ill of her in public. She can't now be dealt with as a human being."
The myth began with her autobiography, La Razon de mi Vida (The Reason for my Life), a fanciful tale that was ghost-written. The book was compulsory reading in schools, and more than one Buenos Aires intellectual can recall being force-fed such tosh as a child. But for others it became a sacred object. "I will return, and I will be millions," is one of the remarks attributed to her.
Evita was driven by feelings of social resentment, according to the sociologist Isabel Flores. This, she says, was the motor for the passion and energy that kept her on the move all the time and awake all hours of the night. "She wanted to take power to avenge the years of humiliation she had suffered. Peron used her but he also feared her, for she had no limits.
"In a deeply conservative society, instead of looking after her man, she behaved like a man. She pushed forward laws that gave women the vote and set up trade unions for housemaids. The upper classes never forgave her."
Madonna flew into town last weekend amid a security operation that whisked her to the Hyatt Hotel, where her huge $2,500-a-night suite comes complete with personal gymnasium.
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 Evita 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.
A leading bishop also burns with condemnation, but not in sympathy for Evita. Argentina's powerful Catholic hierarchy traditionally shares the view of the upper classes that Evita was a vulgar, ostentatious upstart who inspired quasi-religious adoration among millions. Msgr Quarrachino's objection is that Madonna is just such a person, and one who furthermore takes her clothes off in public.
The Peronist President Menem has condemned the original musical as "an absolute and total disgrace". Despite being a fan of show business superstars, he has no plans to meet Madonna. But he is aware of the advantages of allowing a big-budget foreign film to be shot in Buenos Aires.
For a start it creates jobs. Star-struck hopefuls are queuing up for 5,000 jobs as extras at 30 pesos (pounds 20) for a seven-hour day. The requirements are some knowledge of English, short hair and riding skills. But Ms Rivadera is contemptuous of those seeking such work. "They are selling their dignity for 30 pesos," she scoffs. To which one in the queue with several mouths to feed replies that the lady, except he doesn't say lady, is a pain in the balls.
The fashion industry, too, is "desperately awaiting Madonna", says Cecilia Szperling. "They know that if she buys a dress from them, or has her hair cut at a particular hairdresser's, they'll make a fortune from the publicity."
The heart of the capital has changed little since Peron took power in 1945. It retains its imposing architecture and still pulsates with febrile energy day and night. The historic Plaza de Mayo, where Peron and Evita addressed hundreds of thousands of "shirtless ones" from the balcony of the Casa Rosada ("pink house") presidential palace, is little changed. Even the trees, from which many perched for a better view, still stand.
Only the telephone booths are new. Alan Parker asked for them to be removed, and the telephone company, scenting a publicity coup, offered to replace them with 1940s originals. The pink house itself was refurbished not long ago, and its facade glows as it must have done in those days.
The cameras would be advised to avoid Thursdays, when women wearing white headscarves, elderly now but unsubdued, still walk round and round the square demanding the truth about their children who disappeared 20 years ago during the military dictatorship.
When the junta seized power in 1976, its leader, General Videla, refused to move into the presidential residence in the capital's leafy suburb of Olivos until the bodies of Juan Domingo Peron and Evita were removed from the crypt. Evita's embalmed corpse had already been across the Atlantic and back, and had been buried for years in a convent in Milan under another name.
So Evita went on the move again, to the Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires, where she lies with her mother and her brother Juan. Peron joined his father in the other monumental city of the dead, Chacarita.
"In Argentina we can't be neutral about Evita. It's like talking about your mother. You have mixed feelings all the time," says Isabel Flores. "Argentines can't bear to have their lives held up to the light, especially by foreigners who don't always understand the context. I personally think it's a mistake to film in Argentina."
But at the same time, says Andres di Tella, "People are thrilled that the world is looking at us again. It makes us feel important. We have feelings of national decadence and lost grandeur. It's very ambiguous."
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 amidst the finest cattle in the world, and the authentic stench of horse-shit wafts over the set.
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