'Eva Doesn't Sleep': TIFF Review

Eva Doesn't Sleep - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Kinky, creepy and revolutionary, this dreamy meditation on Argentine history is for the niche.

The story of how Argentine leader Eva Peron’s missing body was snatched by the army and hidden by the Vatican for 25 years.

The outlandish true story of Eva Peron’s embalmed body – feared and revered, stolen and publicly displayed, possibly violated and finally buried in a secure tomb – makes a fascinating film even in director Pablo Aguero’s dreamy, semi-experimental Eva Doesn’t Sleep (Eva No Duerme). A handful of key scenes, mingled with reworked archival footage, evoke the fanatical cult that only grew stronger in death. Not just an aesthetic exercise, the film is also a hymn to its heroine, who is uncritically acclaimed as a symbol of revolution.

No one sings "Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina," but audiences are invited to enter the cult, another indication that this is art house territory, along with a key appearance by Gael Garcia Bernal in the unexpected role of a military dictator. Closer to experimental cinema than mainstream, it has the urgency to work for art house audiences up for a challenge. It will compete at San Sebastian following its bow in Toronto.

Though she never held public office, Eva Peron was as powerful a political figure as husband Juan Peron, the president of Argentina. Even after her death in 1952, she remained a magnet for those championing women’s and labor rights, so much so that the military junta made it a crime to possess her picture or even mention her name or that of her husband. The film opens on the curses of a furious Admiral (Garcia Bernal) against “that bitch” who unleashed chaos and let “savages” (i.e., laborers, Indios, peasants) and “whores” (i.e., women) overrun his beautiful capital. Now, 25 years after her death at 33 from a devouring cancer, the current junta intends to bury her once and for all, hoping she’ll finally be forgotten.

See more The Scene at TIFF 2015 (Photos)

The epic journey that the corpse takes defies belief, and is only partially told in the film. Before his overthrow in 1955, Peron was constructing a monument to Eva where her body could be publicly displayed and revered, like Lenin’s corpse in Moscow. When he was forced to flee the country, the new military dictatorship spirited her body away and its whereabouts remained unknown for the next 16 years. It was finally located in a crypt in Milan, presumably placed there by the Vatican, in somewhat damaged condition. The film tentatively suggests the embalmer and later the military performed acts of necrophilia on the “sleeping beauty,” a legend that is probably untrue. Peron had the body exhumed and flown to Spain in 1971, where he kept it in the dining room until his death in 1974. When his widow, Isabel Peron, was elected president of Argentina, she had it returned to Argentina and eventually buried in the family tomb in Buenos Aires.  

One of the creepiest scenes shows the fetishistic embalming by Dr. Pedro Ara (Imanol Arias), whose radical techniques leave the corpse (played by Sabrina Macchi) with an unearthly beauty. As she gently floats in a tank of red embalming fluid, Eva seems like a sexually enticing member of the living dead.

Next we find her lovely body, which may have undergone various violations, inside a wooden crate aboard an army truck. A Hulk-faced colonel (Denis Lavant) and his young aide (Nicolas Goldschmidt) are transporting it to a “Monsignor” at some secret destination. This later is judged a fatal mistake by the right, which should have destroyed the body. But who, gazing at her face, can resist her fascination? The sexually charged atmosphere rubs off on the two transporters, who lose control in a well-acted theatrical scene.

A final sequence showing the 1970 kidnapping and interrogation of Gen. Pedro Aramburu (Daniel Fanego) adds little to the drama. He had been the de facto president of Argentina after Peron was ousted, and is being held by a terrorist group of Montoneros intent on learning the location of Eva’s body.

Aguero has made huge strides forward in directing after earning notice with the experimental, off-beat Salamandra and charming but slight 77 Doronship. Here he seems one step away from reaching a larger swathe of art house audiences. Long takes and a black background distance the story without being off-putting.

The cast is excellent all around, creating ambiguous and unsettling characters that hover in a historical no-man’s-land between dream and reality. Archival images have an equally otherworldly look, and nothing seems completely real.  

Production companies: JBA Production, Haddock Films in association with Pyramide, Tornasol, Tita B Productions
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Denis Lavant, Daniel Fanego, Imanol Arias
Director, screenwriter: Pablo Aguero
Producers: Jacques Bidou, Marianne Dumoulin, Vanessa Ragone
Director of photography: Ivan Gierasinchuk
Production designer: Mariela Ripodas
Music: Valentin Portron
Costumes: Valentina Bari
Editor: Stephane Elmadjian
Sales Agent: Pyramide
85 minutes