The brief life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is recounted as a heroic love story and survivor’s tale in “Frida.” Switching from the Shakespearean sophistication of her film debut “Titus” (which went over many heads), Julie Taymor’s robust and imaginative direction highlights Kahlo’s passionate love for fellow painter Diego Rivera. Co-producer and star Salma Hayek makes the character an icon of female independence, courage and nonconformity, forecasting special appeal for women viewers. Pic’s splashy visuals, bold sexual stance and vividly etched characters from Nelson Rockefeller to Leon Trotsky could help it go beyond the arthouse audience for whom Kahlo is a familiar name and reach out to a wider public.
The pic represents a personal victory for Hayek, whose seven-year struggle to get the picture made against all odds and rivals (including Jennifer Lopez teamed with Francis Ford Coppola and, at one point, Madonna). Bringing a fiery warmth and accessibility to the central role, thesp proves a good match for the artist as she depicts Kahlo’s indomitable will to live, love and paint.
Film opens on Frida (Hayek) as a teen in 1922 Mexico City, spying with her beau (Diego Luna) on famous mural painter Rivera (Alfred Molina) as he draws, then attempts to seduce, a model. To their amusement, his lovemaking is interrupted by his wife, Lupe Marin (a throaty, down-to-earth Valeria Golino), neatly summing up the painter’s philandering nature and his unsuitability as a husband.
It also sets up the climate of sexual permissiveness and experimentation that will characterize Frida’s and Diego’s relationship.
Riding home on a tram, Frida is involved in a gruesome crash with a bus. She is found with her foot crushed, her spinal column and pelvis shattered and the lower part of her body pierced by a metal rod. The operations and recovery process that follow cost her untold pain and bankrupt her family; but while bedridden, she begins to draw and paint.
From this horrific beginning, Frida’s suffering (but also, later, her love) is shown to be the inspiration behind her surrealistic art, which gives direct expression to her interior life.
When she’s able to walk again, she boldly visits Rivera and asks him to critique her work. The instant chemistry between them brews a romance that turns into marriage — Diego’s third. Though her mother disapproves, calling it “the marriage of an elephant to a dove,” they share passionate natures and a strong commitment to radical politics. (Incidentally, pic offers a striking view of Mexico as an artistic and political haven.)
Their wedding reception is held at Communist party headquarters, where members include renowned photographer Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd) and painter David Alfaro Siqueiros (Antonio Banderas in a one-scene bit).
Though film doesn’t try to gloss over their militancy, it takes a distanced approach, glamorizing the bohemian chic of artists like Rivera and Modotti as they slum in working-class bars. Several of these scenes seem to take their cue from Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist,” also set in the ’30s, particularly Judd’s cool elegance as Modotti and a sensual tango between her and Frida that publicly reveals latter’s bisexuality.
The film also manages to be surprisingly neutral about right and wrong in the artistic faceoff between Diego and his New York patron Nelson Rockefeller (limned with humorous ambiguity by Edward Norton), who gets cold feet when Marx and Lenin appear on Rivera’s mural for the Rockefeller Center lobby. In the end Rockefeller fires him and has the mural destroyed, but this event is overshadowed by Frida’s traumatic miscarriage.
Certainly some true events are stranger than fiction, such as Frida’s fling with the aged Leon Trotsky (an admirable Geoffrey Rush).
Ultimately, striking a balance among film’s many elements — Frida’s deteriorating relationship with Diego, betrayal by her sister (Mia Maestro), her arrest after Trotsky’s assassination, new paintings, various family tragedies, mounting pain after ever more torturous operations and illnesses — proves more than the film can handle. The lack of a dramatic curve is keenly felt at the end, and the poetic finale that is offered as a conclusion doesn’t completely satisfy.
Straining after vivid images like the ones that left an indelible mark on “Titus,” Taymor finds inspiration from a variety of sources including floating gardens, Aztec ruins, Mexican death masks and period postcards, used in some memorable special effects sequences that work much better than in her earlier film.
But the film’s real visual coup is its re-creation of dozens of remarkable paintings by Kahlo, now acknowledged as one of the greatest women artists of the 20th century. Many of these suddenly spring to life with Hayek or Molina in them, underlining the close relationship between Frida’s life and art.
The actors seem to ease into their roles as the film progresses and the emotional temperature heats up. Hayek creates a full-bodied character with an obstinate lust for life. Molina throws himself into the role of the self-advertising, bad-tempered womanizer Diego who matures into a better man.
Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto ably shifts pic’s tone from the gaudy colors and unfiltered sunlight of Mexico to sophisticated, desaturated hues in New York and Paris.
Production designer Felipe Fernandez del Paso gives the pic a strong ethnic look in his re-creations of Frida’s incredible homes, often the actual locations. Elliot Goldenthal’s score follows Mexican folk music quite closely, with a lyrical sidestep sung by Caetano Velosa and Lila Downs.