March 25, 2003 -- "Frida," the biography of famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, should be a fascinating story, but, oddly enough, it is not compelling. It should be, because Kahlo lived a very rich and passionate life. She had a tempestuous relationship with her husband, philandering artist Diego Rivera, and an affair with exiled communist leader Leon Trotsky, and several women.
Frida is played by Salma Hayek of "Wild, Wild West." That ought to have been enough to kill the film right there, but Hayek actually does a decent job with this role. Alfred Molina is superb as Rivera, and Valeria Golino ("Hot Shots Part Deux") does a great job of playing Lupe Marín, Rivera's ex-wife. Also appearing briefly are Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky, Edward Norton as Nelson Rockefeller, Antonio Banderas as David Siqueiros and Ashley Judd as Tina Modotti. The film takes us through almost all of Frida's life, including the devastating bus accident which gave her a number of debilitating injuries. While recuperating from her injuries, Frida began to draw and paint, eventually perfecting her own unique style. The film is filled with paintings and colorful sets. One set includes the huge mural that Rivera painted at the Rockefeller Center in New York City. The mural became a political football when Rivera put some communist leaders in the painting.
With all this stuff going on, you would think the film would be more compelling, but it seems more like a tired history lesson. Frida is interesting, but not all that different from some other famous artists in her Bohemian lifestyle (there's a shock), her husband's many extra-marital affairs (Frida knew he was a hound dog long before she married him) and her bisexuality. This is standard stuff for a biopic of an artist. She is an artist, she acts like an artist. In itself, that doesn't make her life particularly interesting. What Frida seems to lack, in the film, anyway, is the intellectual fire of her husband. She's rebellious, yes, but not particularly intelligent or original in her thoughts. At least Diego seems to have an original thought now and then.
It not shocking to learn that artists like Frida and Diego Rivera would not be conventional in their morality, nor in their political beliefs. The fact that Rivera is a devout communist is also to be expected given the historical period (Frida and Diego were married in 1929). Communism was very fashionable, particularly in the art community, at this time. The fact that Frida's injury became the wellspring for her artistic inspiration is unusual, but it doesn't make for a compelling story, merely a depressing one, as we watch Frida's health slowly deteriorate. The fact that she seems to subsist mainly on tobacco smoke and tequila means that some of her health problems were self-inflicted.
The one area where the film excels is in its visual imagination. Frida's paintings literally come to life in the film, and there are some wonderful dream sequences. The colorful production design by Felipe Fernandez ("Desperado"), art direction by Bernardo Trujillo ("Blow") and cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto ("Amores Perros") are all first-rate. This is a great looking film with a lot of visual imagination. The story, however, lacks a dramatic payoff. It is more like watching an exercise in existential ennui. This film rates a C+.
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