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Frida Kahlo photo

The real Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo painting
The Two Fridas, 1939
Frida (2002)  starstarstarstar

Reviewed 2001-11-03: She was a Stalinist until the day she died, but her true belief was in art -- an art drawn from her pain. As played by the gorgeous Salma Hayek, herself Mexican-born, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is very much a personal portrayal: I think Hayek sees her both as a countrywoman and as a feminist, but not so much as a Communist. Indeed, the politics are there, especially in the character of Frida's husband, the artist-revolutionist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) -- played wonderfully by Alfred Molina -- but little is made of them. Frida is at heart a film about love and suffering and triumph. Above all, there is plenty of heart in Frida, and in Frida, which is a credit to the script (based on the Hayden Herrera book, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo), the direction (by Lion King and Titus director Julie Taymor), and on the production values (Hayek was one of the many producers).

The film could easily have been called Frida and Diego, for there is more about their stormy marriage, both their infidelities, and both their artistic achievements, than it is about Frida alone. This film is far from a hagiography of Frida, or a victimology, or a feminist polemic. Instead, Frida portrays its protagonist as a strong woman who overcame a near-fatal bus accident -- staged in the opening of the film like one of her paintings and showing the impaled high school girl looking like an angel covered in gold dust -- and took up painting because she could not rise from her bed for a year. One day she takes some of her work to Diego Rivera, at the time an established artist (working for the aristocracy -- go figure), and asks his opinion. Thus begins a love affair, and an on-and-off marriage with the serially unfaithful Rivera, that ends only with her death in 1954.

Salma Hayek, Alfred Molinas
Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo and
Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera
I hope that Frida will not be mislabeled a "chick flick." That would do the story and the characters an injustice. Director Taymor has not only made the film visually appealing -- digitally inserting Hayek into recreations of Frida's artwork and composing shots like the paintings themselves, not to mention exploring the exciting landscape of Hayek's own body -- but emotionally exciting as well. She has assembled a talented cast, including Geoffrey Rush as exiled revolutionist Leon Trotsky (who caught an ice pick in the brain, courtesy of Stalin, on August 21, 1940), Ashley Judd as Italian photographer Tina Modotti (with whom Frida engages in a sensual dance), Antonio Banderas as Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros (with whom I first noticed Hayek in Desperado, 1995), Valeria Golino as Rivera's favorite model, Lupe Marín, and Roger Reese as Frida's German-Jewish father, Guillermo. Frida had affairs with some of her contemporaries, male and female (including Josephine Baker); Rivera had affairs with others, all female, including Frida's sister (Mía Maestro). It was an unusual marriage: Frida demanded loyalty of Rivera, since she could not get fidelity.

Diego had his greatest commission, and greatest test, in New York, when he accepted work from Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton), but alienated his benefactor by including a portrait of Lenin in his mural. His failure to compromise ended in a payoff and the destruction of his art. At the same time, Frida accompanies Rivera to New York, where the baby she desperately wants miscarries and she creates some of her most emotionally wrenching paintings. They are almost all self-portraits, and almost all spring from the heart, where Rivera's spring from his politics. It is that difference that makes Frida's paintings enduring where Rivera's quickly showed their age.

Although it is Frida's pain, both emotional and physical, that defines her and inspires her art, it is her triumph over that pain that makes her life in this film as rich as her art. This is no small feat, and for Salma Hayek Frida has to be a film, and a role, of a lifetime. Can you name any other Latina (Jennifer Lopez doesn't count because she was born, and grew up, in New York) to star in a US film? The film ends where it began, with Frida obeying her doctor's orders not to leave her bed, yet still managing to attend her first solo art exhibition in Mexico City! How can you not admire a woman so in love with life?

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.