Viewing Films with Autism and Evita’s Rhythmic Sway

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“The best show in town was the crowd outside the Casa Rosada crying ‘Eva Peron!’”

Film rhythm is something one has to learn about to become familiar with, but there has always been a part of me that has been aware of it, at least on a subconscious level. Timing the speed and pacing of editing, visual movement, and sound to align in a cohesive manner is something most directors want to do, but rarely do the beats wholly match up. It’s not something a lot of people think about, but I cherish it as a rare joy of cinema—and one that has always has a uniquely profound effect on me.

Because of my high-functioning autism, my childhood was spent in an alternating cycle of crying over some arbitrary thing and crying because I felt guilty about crying; being able to escape into the pattern-like groove of films always helped calm these anxieties. Watching the first Austin Powers over and over, I loved hearing “Secret Agent Man” kick in as Austin started chasing Dr. Evil through his secret subterranean lair. The editing, matched with the frenetic nature of the song, gave the scene both a climactic and comedic tone which always kept me intensely involved.

Even though I have more of a handle on my autism now than I did back then, I continue to be drawn to the sensations that films can provide. I think that’s why Alan Parker’s 1996 film version of Evita connects with me so heavily. It’s not necessarily that the content of the film is masterful, but the manner in which it is handled appeals to that baser pleasure I get from a film that knows how to coordinate its formal elements into something that is remarkably cohesive on a sensory level. It’s not that the film is great so much as it feels great.

Evita’s most iconic scene is undoubtedly when Eva Peron (Madonna) stands on her balcony, soothing the crowd below with assurances that she is as worthy of glory as any one of them. However, my favourite scene in the film is probably the opening number, “Oh What a Circus,” because of how well it exemplifies the film’s ability to match picture and sound. The changing dramatic scope, range, and volume of this single song encapsulates everything that makes the film so special to me as a naturally attentive observer of aesthetics.

This is not to neglect the song itself, though. As an introductory number it works effectively, raising questions of whether or not Eva’s rise to glory was really worthwhile for the people of Argentina, or if it was just that “she didn’t say much but she said it loud.” It also sets up Che (Antonio Banderas) as less an active character in the film and more an observer, commenting on Eva’s actions and decisions without being affected by them. On paper it works for what it needs to do, but that’s also why its sensory overlap is as important as it is to conveying the material effectively. The sequence’s juxtaposed fragments reveal that both sides of the film’s internal discussion—love for Eva and hatred for Eva—are equally valid. And the impact of Eva’s death is equally intense—whether that impact is on a crowd of thousands or a group of dancing farmers, whether it is full of angered violence or impassioned mourning. “Oh What a Circus” wants to convey the power that Peron had over all the people shown in the film, and Parker’s cinematic depiction of the song is meant to convey that sentiment in a way that affects the audience on both a primal level and an intellectual one. He communicates the effects of Peron’s death through the text of the songand through the subtext of shot composition, editing, and movement within the frame.

The scene initially establishes an intimately subdued scope, with a shot of Che sitting alone in a rustic, desolate bar. A fan spins slowly in the background, but otherwise Che is the only animate figure in the frame. His movements are deliberate and precise, tilting his head upward on the higher pitched ending of the lyric “oh what a show.” The nation is in shambles and all he does is comment from afar. The shot composition places Che, a vocal but powerless player in the story, in the background as the guitar-dominated music humbly places itself behind his singing. The bar is deserted, abandoned by the people attending Eva’s funeral procession. Except, that is, for the ever-skeptical Che, who stays not only for himself but for the audience.

Even as he leaves the bar and walks around the crowd, we follow him, and as the image becomes busier, the music picks up tempo and prominence. More instruments join in and Che’s voice becomes blunter and more cutting, his critical side never faltering even amidst widespread sorrow. He doesn’t go into the crowd for fear of becoming part of it, but still concedes that Eva “had her moments” while walking outside the group. He still narrates to us, but the way the camera follows him into the midst of the crowd gradually raises the scope bit by bit, shot by shot.

And once Che goes offscreen, the entire crowd suddenly starts solemnly singing in Eva Peron’s memory with organ accompaniment. A major jump in scale, the film is now showing the breadth of the event while still conveying it sympathetically. Just as impressive, though, is the sheer ambition in the scene’s execution. Thousands of extras stand at attention, having been meticulously coordinated for a scene that lasts less than thirty seconds. The movie lover in me is astonished at the attention to detail and the effort it must have taken to get this scene exactly right, considering the numerous figures onscreen, and the autistic child in me is absolutely delighted by how Parker found a way to visually represent the epic scale of the original score. As I tap along with the singing, I notice how well the vocals and editing fit one another, even though the singing is quicker than the cutting. Because the song’s lyrics highlight sustained final words and syllables, the visuals accompany that trait by holding on shots for a few seconds longer than usual. They match in a necessarily unconventional way, keeping the synchronized rhythm of the film afloat without ever feeling tacky or distracting.

Suddenly, the film shifts from Che’s frustrated musings to his full-on outrage, and the rest of the country follows suit, exploding into anger-fueled chaos over Eva’s death. Whether this unrest is a result of sadness or disdain for Eva is left up to audience interpretation, again allowing the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions from the events onscreen. Che, despite being the voice of reason, does nothing to quell this, and even encourages it in his lyrics.

“Your queen is dead,
your king is through,
and she’s not coming back to you!”

Parker, in under forty seconds, packs the next stretch of film with nothing less than drive-by bombings, riots, vandalism, police retaliation, and mass protests—yet it never feel incomprehensible because the music practically demands this kind of forceful editing and imagery. If it there were a wholly static moment or a limply-done shot in this segment, it would fall apart. Even the clips of Eva speaking are given a forceful life, reinforcing how this single person warrants all this mass anger, passion, and mourning.

The song starts to wind down—visually and aurally—as Che holds on the final “you,” and the shot of angry protesters begins to fade into slow-dancing citizens in a hall of some sort. The room is lit by a prominent white light, but darkness and soothing choir melodies, in honor of Eva Peron, surround the citizens. They have none of Che’s anger, only sadness that this person they admired so much is now gone. With the use of a match cut, Parker transports us to a farming village where the citizens are doing the same form of dance. A small scene is quickly turned into a far-reaching one, but none of the tenderness of the moment is gone. The grief may cross cultural boundaries, but the people of Argentina are no less at the mercy of their woe. Then, the loud sound of an orchestra enters the soundtrack, as the dancing farmers buckle because of their emotions, and a couple seconds later we find out why.

“Don’t cry for me, Argentina.
For I am ordinary, unimportant.
And undeserving of such attention, unless we all are.
I think we all are.
So share my glory. So share my coffin.”

Historical quibbles could be lobbied against Evita and its source material in spades, but as a work of art separate from reality this moment shows just how much Eva Peron seemed to care about those beneath her. As someone who started from the bottom and made her way up the societal ladder, she has lived at every level possible. Nevertheless, her starting place is no less a deciding factor in her stance, as shown by the way the film cuts from her casket to her crying younger self. The people of Argentina connected with her largely because she seemed to connect with them, and that meant the world to the populace. Yet as she finishes her verse, Che can be heard ominously singing “it’s our funeral too,” their simultaneous play a reminder that no matter what your assessment of her legacy is, nobody in the film really benefited by the death of Eva Peron.

And so, after the film has given a preview of everything it has to offer, the story begins. As an introductory scene, “Oh What a Circus” uses every tool it has to connect with its audience, before we even get to know any of the characters, and it does so through pure filmmaking. We get minimal concrete information about Eva, but in the span of only six minutes, Parker concisely sets up every single tone, beat, style, and pace that the film will eventually undergo. The sequence moves and sways so melodiously with the ever-changing music that it’s more like a cinematic dance than standard musical directing.

And I sway with it, moved into its emotional groove, either because of my condition or because the film is just so properly directed. I think it’s likely a combination of both. The grasp Evita has on its own intention satiates me, both as the movie-lover I am today and the crying Austin Powers-loving kid I used to be.

Chris Donald is a third-year university student studying film theory in Waterloo, Ontario. He likes Wes Anderson, Monty Python, and tacos. Some insist his name should be Ted.