Frida Movie Review

After withstanding a decade of development, a race between two competing projects, and the mural-sized egos of Jennifer Lopez and Madonna, a film biography of Frida Kahlo has finally made it to the screen. Who would have guessed that a film about a mustachioed, Mexican woman with a peg leg and an overweight, Communist husband would generate so much interest? Nevertheless Frida's producers, including star Salma Hayek, somehow prevented this unique story from becoming a disastrous vanity project and ended up with an unlikely Hollywood film.

Frida Kahlo's (Salma Hayek) first meeting with Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) and her injury in a horrible bus accident set in motion the two major forces behind Frida. Bedridden for months in a full-body cast, the young Frida keeps herself busy--and learns to express her internal passions and pain--through drawing and painting. Falling in with the womanizing Rivera and his bohemian cadre of artists and revolutionaries deepens Frida's commitment to her painting and life with the loyal but philandering muralist. Their art carries them from Mexico to New York and back in the company of such impressive historical figures as David Alfaro Siqueiros (Antonio Banderas), Nelson Rockefeller (Ed Norton), and Leon Trotsky (Geoffery Rush).

Frida may not be as audacious as Julie Taymor's directorial debut Titus, but the film displays some real visual flair. Imaginative, surreal interludes mark major narrative transitions; stop-motion masters the Brother's Quay create an impressive dream sequence to depict Frida's dreadful back surgery, and a black and white montage shows Rivera as King Kong conquering the New York art world. Taymor has obvious respect for the art her characters create, allowing the camera to linger on the artist's work and incorporating some of Kahlo's most famous paintings into the story. Many serve as emotional touch points for the characters, revealing the player's internal states through their content.

Unfortunately, Taymor's strong direction gives Hayek a crutch, letting her rely on the striking visuals to do her emotional heavy lifting. Her performance is not consistently strong enough to carry the substantial undertaking that comes with playing a historical figure as thorny and significant as Kahlo. In quiet moments, Hayek is often the spitting image of the Frida we know from her paintings. But too often the actress seems afraid of getting something wrong, as if too self-conscious to really settle into Kahlo's skin. Too often Hayek looks like she's involved in an elaborate game of dress up, not channeling the sprit of Kahlo.

This staged feeling often distances the characters from the real Mexico the surrounds them. Frida and her accomplices look like they on a historical reenactment tour when they walk through crowds of "real" Mexican extras that provided background for the location shoot. This in not helped by the writing which on several occasions feels very forced, such as when Rivera describes having "eaten women's flesh, wrapped in a tortilla" or when Rivera's ex-wife describes him as "a big Mexican piñata, filled with enough candy for everyone." This kind of dialogue draws too much attention to the "Mexican-ness" of the characters in a way that rings hollow.

However, Frida's failings are ultimately a result of what makes the film successful. Taymor's experimental sense of the theatrical paints Kahlo's life with the right kind of drama, breaking down barriers between the actors and the paintings. To be tied too religiously to the specifics of a "real" Mexico might sink Frida to the level of mere biopic. And for a film that has traveled so far, with so many celebrities looking on from the sidelines, that would be the worst outcome.

Reviewed at the 2002 Mill Valley Film Festival.

The two-disc DVD has the usual interviews with the likes of Salma Hayek ("This movie has given me so many satisfactions, and they have been surprise!"), a commentary from Taymor, and a scene-specific mini-commentary from composer Elliot Goldenthal. For the Kahlo lover in you, you'll find no better resource about Frida this side of the printed page.

Who needs a bib?

Comments

Frida Rating

" Good "

Rating: R, 2002

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