BUENOS AIRES — Will the real Eva Pern please stand up?
Like in the old "What's My Line" television show, the public from Buenos Aires to Istanbul is being introduced to a plethora of versions of the legendary Argentine actress, first lady, and secular saint. There may be no choosing the right one, but the sheer number indicates how controversial - and captivating - remains the woman who made Argentina swoon in the years after World War II.
As American movie audiences prepare for the Alan Parker version of the musical "Evita," opening Christmas Day and starring that 'material girl' gone maternal, Madonna, Argentines are already privy to a different film version of Mrs. Pern. The capital, Buenos Aires, also boasts a theatrical play about Pern's life.
And then there is Argentine writer Toms Eloy Martnez's bestselling work - which, after selling wildly in Spanish, English, and Italian, is now available in two dozen other languages, including Tamil and Turkish.
Here, in a country where the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has never been staged, some say the national film production "Eva Pern," which debuted Oct. 24, was designed to convince Argentines they've already seen the movie about their rags-to-riches queen before Madonna hits their screens. That way, the argument goes, they might skip the American version and be spared what many Argentines fear will be a none-too-flattering look at a woman much of the nation literally adores. While many Argentines revere Pern's memory, others consider her an ambitious power-grabber and cite the contradiction of a woman who pleaded for the poor while living a life of opulent luxury.
"I've heard the Americans aren't going to show her as she really was, but will present her as a prostitute, which would be a tragedy," says Marta Ayastuy, a self-described contemporary of Pern. (Pern died in 1952 - shortly after hundreds of thousands of Argentines gathered on Buenos Aires' Nueve de Julio Avenue to beg her to run as vice president under her husband, then-president Juan Pern.) While waiting to see the Argentine movie recently, Ms. Ayastuy says, "It's not possible to damage her image here, but I'm worried about how this Madonna will affect the way she is seen internationally."
The producer of the Argentine film, Hugo Eduardo Lauria, says it is ridiculous to think that "Eva Pern" was made to upstage "Evita." First, the Argentine production was in the planning stages before Mr. Parker's version with Madonna was announced, he says. Second, "these are two completely distinct pictures," he adds, with the Parker version a musical, and the film by Argentine director Juan Carlos Desanzo "a modest look at the last three years of Eva Pern's life - what I would call the political years."
But besides that, Mr. Lauria says it would be futile for a small Argentine movie to try to compete with an American megaproduction with top international stars and an internationally recognized director. "I think the Alan Parker picture will be spectacular," he adds, "and I think we [Argentines] should see it."
Whether he likes it or not, however, Lauria's film is clearly benefiting from a reaction against the "Madonna movie" as it is called here. That reaction stems at least in part from an Argentine distrust and distaste for the idea that foreigners could properly interpret the life of their Evita, considered by many to be responsible for many of the benefits Argentina's working classes reaped in the postwar years.
"Do I plan to see the movie about Eva Pern," sniffs Jorge, a leather goods merchant in one of Buenos Aires' high-end shops. "If you mean this movie with Madonna, I think it is ridiculous. It will have nothing truthful about Eva Pern, and I would never see it," says the salesman, who was a young man during Pern's reign. "But the [Argentine] version I hear is truthful; it shows the way she was and was filmed more in actual government settings. That one I'll go see."
After floods of publicity during the "Evita" filming here, most people in Buenos Aires seem to know that the Argentine production received better access to key settings than the Parker film crew. Some Argentines even attribute a steep dip in President Carlos Menem's popularity to his granting permission to Madonna and company to film a key scene from Pern's public life on the balcony of the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace in the heart of the capital.
But as Mr. Menem probably realized, when dealing with such a controversial and still-revered figure - Pern's image still appears on propaganda passed out by Argentina's labor unions - there is probably no pleasing anyone.
As she leaves the movie theater where she saw "Eva Pern" with her sister Berta, Ayastuy concurs with her sibling's view that the movie failed to give a true picture of Pern's accomplishments, both for the working class and women in particular. (Pern used her influence to help women get the vote.)
"Maybe I will go see 'Evita' now," says Ayastuy, encouraged by her sister to "have an open mind." "Maybe this Madonna has a sense for what our Evita meant to so many people."