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22nd November
written by Mad Cow

Rated: R for sexuality/nudity and language

Mad Cow’s rating:

Bravo to director Julie Taymor and star Salma Hayek for working so hard to get this movie to the screen, and, more important, for their stellar performances. A colorful montage about artist Frida Kahlo’s life and loves and work, the film presents the biography of a genius. The story is based on a book by Hayden Herrera and screenplay by Diane Lake, Gregory Nava, Clancy Sigal, and Anna Thomas. The film gives contextual fullness and credit to Kahlo, focusing on her as a determined artist and complex personality. This is quite remarkable in a world that generally bestows this kind of attention only on men. But I hasten to add that the greatness of the film is not merely in its respect for women but in its beautifully delivered, layered portrayal of the artist’s life.

Hayek portrays Kahlo from her high school years, when she was severely injured in a bus accident, until her untimely death in 1953 at the age of 46. Although she was able to walk and even dance, the accident’s damage caused her severely debilitating pain throughout her life. Yet she let nothing stop her from living as she wished. She married the famous artist and womanizer Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), actively supported the communist movement, and pursued sexual liaisons with both men and women. All the while, her work as a painter continued relentlessly. When her body was in a cast, she painted from bed. In joy and much sorrow, she painted, on ordinary days and difficult days.

With Mexican cultural imagery and colors, Taymor suggests dreamy and sometimes nightmarish ways in which Kahlo’s painting related to her life. Yet these suggestions do not overwhelm us. It would be clear to any viewer of her work that Kahlo suffered. But, as Diego says in the film, her work reflects the tragedy and suffering, as well as the happiness inherent in human life. Taymor blends Kahlo’s paintings and inspirations into her life and her life into her paintings, letting us imagine for brief moments how artists must work in order to live, no matter what.

Compare this theme with the recent movie “Iris,” about writer Iris Murdock, which is hardly about her at all, but could be about any intelligent woman who is stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. Or consider the depiction of poet Joy Grisham in the movie, “Shadowlands,” which tells the story of C.S. Lewis’ love for her. When she met Lewis, she had already won some awards for her poetry. In the movie we never see Joy writing, only knitting. Viewing “Frida,” we never stray far from Kahlo’s work, even as we witness her turbulent love and losses.

Life with Diego was harder than Frida imagined it would be, as she found it less and less possible to put up with his infidelity. Diego seems to use his unfaithfulness as a wedge between them, while at the same time ignorant of his motives and totally unable to stop. Yet we see the chemistry between them. Molina does an incredible job of depicting an ordinary-looking, overweight man who is also a genius irresistible to women. In an almost indefinable way, he is likeable even when he’s being an ass. We can’t forgive him but we can understand how she feels about him. At the same time, Frida’s free spirit finds joy and solace in the likes of Josephine Baker and Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), who fled from Russia to Rivera’s home in Mexico. Remarkably, the movie never sinks into melodrama, political commentary, or didactic historical narration.

Hayek and Molina are the strength of the movie. One or the other is almost always on screen. Yet they are surrounded by a marvelous and vibrant supporting case. Hayek’s boyfriend, Edward Norton, has a cameo role as Nelson Rockefeller, who destroyed Rivera’s mural in Rockefeller Center when it was discovered that it included a portrait of Lenin. Mia Maestro as Frida’s sister Christina, and Patricia Reyes Spindola as her disapproving mother are marvelous in portraying how a family can be close even when its members don’t behave well. Guillermo Kahlo (Roger Rees), Frida’s doting father, shows us where she got the strength to carry on. The performances of  Ashley Judd as photographer Tina Modotti and Valeria Golino as Diego’s ex-wife Lupe Marin are outstanding. Seeing Hayek and Judd tango together is worth the price of the movie.

You may have noticed by now that I’ve spent a lot of space discussing all the bad things this movie could have been but isn’t. Let me remind you that it is engrossing, complex, colorful, inspiring, and it has several lovely lesbian scenes. Taymor, whose previous work included the production of “The Lion King” on Broadway and the 1999 film “Titus,” is a visual artist in her own way, dipping into magical realism to show emotion, and never losing sight of the humanity and individual depth of each character. The movie practically overflows with a feminine sensibility without being a “chick flick.” What more could anyone want?

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