Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Frida Movie Review

This review was written at the end of 2002 with the intention of publishing it on a website that no longer exists. The unusual structure is a remnant of the requirements of that site. It is published here for the first time.

Synopsis: Biopic about the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. The film chronicles her life in a series of anecdotes as she meets, falls in love with and marries fellow artist Diego Rivera. Kahlo endures a tragic accident that leaves her crippled for life. She uses the enduring pain to fuel her painting which expresses her dark and somber moods as well as the excitement she found in a life with Rivera. That excitement lasts only until she exposes his lack of fidelity and loyalty to her. Late in life, Kahlo and Rivera took in Leon Trotsky and his wife after they fled into exile in Mexico. The film suggests that an affair takes place between Kahlo and Trotsky. This becomes a way for her to hurt the man she loved and who hurt her more than the trolley accident that left her in physical pain for life.

Scoop: First I must admit that I knew next to nothing of Frida Kahlo's life or art before seeing director Julie Taymor's biopic Frida. I knew only that she was married to Diego Rivera, the Mexican artist who was a Socialist and once included a portrait of Lenin in a mural he painted in the lobby of Rockefeller Center (the mural was promptly destroyed).

Whether or not Taymor's vision of Kahlo, working from a screenplay by Gregory Nava (El Norte) and others, based on Hayden Herrera's book, is factually accurate is irrelevant. What matters is whether the material presented on screen makes for good film drama. The answer is a definitive "Yes."


Watching the film one will learn that Frida Kahlo (played with intense physicality by Salma Hayek) imbued her work with horrific images that were expressive of the pain, both physical and emotional, she felt throughout most of her adult life. Kahlo was involved in a trolley accident early in her life that broke her legs and back leaving her permanently crippled. It is something of a miracle that she managed to walk again.

While spending months lying in bed wrapped in a full body cast she composes a sketch of her foot because, as she says, "It is the only view I have." That line resonates when we see her later work and the suffering in it.

If the trolley accident was one cause of her suffering, then the other is her love for Rivera, played by Alfred Molina in a great, yet overlooked, performance. Rivera is portrayed as a charismatic womanizer, married twice before Frida and guaranteed to sleep with other women. Molina steals every scene he is in, which is about ninety percent of the film, but that is the point. Molina plays him as a man you cannot take your eyes from. Not only is he a giant of a man, looming over the petite Hayek, but he has a way of talking to women that makes them desire him in an uncontrollable way.

Frida knows Rivera will not be faithful, but he promises, at least, to be loyal. When she catches him with her sister, he has destroyed that vow and the pain Frida has held inside from watching him with other women is finally released. She declares to Diego that she has had two major accidents in her life: the trolley and him.

Taymor, who directed both The Lion King on Broadway and the film Titus with tremendous visual flare, has a gift for using the camera as a paintbrush. The film is visually stunning, no doubt, but I do question the use of certain techniques. While many of her methods of visual storytelling are fluid and useful, others come off as too much of a distraction.

Also on display is the wonderful art direction by Bernardo Trujillo and the cinematography of Rodrigo Pietro. Julie Weiss's costume design draws out the vibrant Frida Kahlo by placing her in elaborately ornamented and brightly colored outfits causing her to stand out from her drab surroundings in Mexico, then New York and Paris.

The film is peppered with supporting performers who hold their own next to the dynamic lead actors: Antonio Banderas as David Siqueiros, Rivera's rival in Mexico; Ashley Judd as Italian photographer Tina Modotti; Roger Rees as Frida's father; Geoffrey Rush as Leon Trotsky; Valeria Golino as Rivera's previous wife; and Edward Norton as Nelson Rockefeller. For an interesting companion piece to the New York section of the film, watch Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock which has John Cusack in the Rockefeller role. Compare the opposite ways Norton and Cusack play the same character in the same situation.

The focus of the film is on pain, and rightfully so as that is the focus of Kahlo's work.  Her participation in the Socialist movement is mostly left at the perimeter except when she agrees to harbor Trotsky and his wife. Other tragedies and misfortunes in her life contribute to Frida's work as well, including the miscarriage of her baby and the amputation of part of her leg later in life which leads to her abuse of morphine and alcohol and, ultimately, death. The film does not suggest that without suffering in her life Frida's art would not have been as influential as it is, but one can't help but wonder if she would have needed the canvas as an outlet without it.

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