Frida Kahlo finally gets the film fit for her peculiar and dazzling vision of life with Amy Stechler’s intelligent biographical docu, “The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo.” After a few failed-to-middling attempts to dramatize her alternately adventurous and secluded life, Stechler’s film emphatically convincesthat Kahlo’s story is one better told biographically. Latino and docu-oriented fests are prime outlets, even as pic begins airing on PBS starting March 23.
As Ken Burns’ key artistic partner on such early work as “Brooklyn Bridge,” “The Shakers” and “Huey Long,” Stechler helped forge the now-familiar but still highly effective style of designing grand historical and personal narratives by weaving elegantly shot talking-head experts and archival photos and footage. New pic is true to this form, and those unaware of Stechler’s crucial early contribution to what has become known as “the Burns style” may mistakenly think Burns the driving force here. Rather, Burns only served as one of project’s many consultants and advisers (including his gifted filmmaker brother Ric, and major Kahlo biographer Hayden Herera).
Film’s thesis, that Kahlo transformed her life by painting herself, and by making her own life a work of art, sets her apart from her more fame-minded male counterparts. Her story also corresponds to that of Mexico, a conservative Catholic country that underwent an equally transforming revolution while she was growing up. Stechler is fascinated with this parallelism — the young girl becoming a modern woman at the same time — the mid-1920s — the young country found its national voice.
Journalist Elena Poniatowska is among the brilliantly selected on-camera commentators (including the great Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, perceptive art historian Victor Zamudio-Taylor and journalist Carlos Monsivais) who appraise Kahlo’s life, which somehow embraced everything from Marxism (and even for awhile, Stalinism) and free love, cross-dressing and traditional Mexican Catholic iconographic painting to globe-hopping and an inward-looking obsession with her own physical infirmities.
Perhaps a key to such eclecticism is hit upon by Zamudio-Taylor, who identifies Kahlo as a definitive example of Mexico’s mixteca, or mixed-race, majority, equal parts Spanish and indigenous.
On the other hand, there seems no explanation for Kahlo’s attraction to muralist master Diego Rivera, and pic’s bountiful supply of photos and fine color and black-and-white film of the pair confirm they were the oddest of couples. His corpulent, hulking figure seems to engulf her, and yet she looks directly into the camera with such supreme confidence and personal daring that she’s the star of the show, not the more famous Rivera.
At 18, Kahlo’s near-fatal accident in a trolley car shattered much of her body and fundamentally changed her life from free-wheeling to bedridden, and though she started painting during this time, pic makes it clear it wasn’t until the early ’30s, when married Rivera and Kahlo were living in the U.S. and Kahlo suffered a stillbirth, that she truly found her voice as an artist painting self-images of her pain.
Kahlo’s life was such a frothy mix of artistic discovery, physical challenge, political activism and emotional roller coaster within a faithless marriage, that it’s almost too big to tell. Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s short 1983 biopic on Kahlo and photographer friend Tina Modotti skillfully avoided this problem by examining only a portion of the life; but Stechler’s achievement is in grasping the complete story in all its dimensions, and making a strong case for Kahlo’s lasting artistic importance.
A major contributor to pic’s unified feel is Rita Moreno, delivering a lovely and impassioned narration, while Stechler’s work as her own editor and (uncredited) researcher is the key to docu’s uncommonly smooth, fluid and richly textured quality.