Rated R - Running Time: 1:58 - Released 11/8/02

Frida tells the fascinating story of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, wife of the much more famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957), whose story has not been told much in the U.S., probably because he was an active and vocal member of the Communist Party, an advocate of Socialism in Mexico, an admirer and follower of Vladimir Lenin, and a close friend of Leon Trotsky—not exactly your standard American hero for the 20th century. Although Rivera seems universally considered to have been as much a womanizer and philanderer as a great muralist, he apparently was devoted if not strictly faithful to Frida (his third wife, who, to be fair, engaged in a few extramarital liaisons of her own, some of them with women), and very respectful of her artwork, which, according to the screenplay, he often claimed was better than his own.

Starring Salma Hayek, who shines in the title role, and Chocolat’s Alfred Molina, equally excellent as Rivera, the film recounts the high and low points of her life and their tumultuous marriage—spanning the period between 1922, when she was involved in a devastating trolley accident in which she received injuries to her lower spine and abdomen that would cause lifelong complications, and her death in 1954. During that time we witness their first meeting, when, after spending three weeks in a body cast following the accident, she asked Diego to judge her artwork; their trip to New York together, when he was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller to paint the famously controversial Man At The Crossroads mural, which was subsequently destroyed because of its prominent portrait of Lenin; Frida’s pregnancy and miscarriage of their only child together; and the period during which Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union by Stalin and stayed (and had a brief extramarital affair) with Frida in 1937; finally culminating with the fulfillment of Frida’s lifelong dream of having her works exhibited at a show in her own country of Mexico.

This film is based on the book Frida: A Biography Of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrerra, adapted for the screen by Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava, and Anna Thomas. Directed by Julie Taymor, who helmed the critically acclaimed Broadway production of The Lion King as well as the 1999 film version of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, it is a stylistic masterpiece, using an engaging sense of visual artistry to bring Frida’s charismatic and multi-faceted personality to life on the screen. Using a wild combination of live action, animation, and paintings that seem to come alive, Taymor illustrates the subjective nature of Frida’s world as well as her quasi-surrealistic art, showing us how things she might have seen in her mind or felt in her broken body were later translated onto her canvas. For instance, we see the experience which may have led to her painting The Broken Column, one of her many self-portraits, which depicts her bare-breasted, wearing her metal truss, with her spine visible as a crumbling marble pillar, with tears streaming down her face and tiny nails or needles piercing her body. This artwork is emotionally resonant already, but seeing Hayek struggling with the truss, with the pain, and with her conflicting feelings toward her husband, makes it all the more meaningful.

Hayek, who reportedly suffered racist comments from producers in her early career about the likelihood of a Mexican actress being taken seriously in the film world, apparently also suffered more than a little pain herself for the production, not only transforming her famously beautiful appearance to the more plain and ethnic look Frida was famous for (including growing a slight moustache and penciling in a dark “monobrow”), but also suffering nerve and ligament damage after being attacked by the capuchin monkey playing her pet in the movie. In addition to Hayek’s inspired performance, and that of Molina, there are several impressive turns by such supporting players as Edward Norton (Hayek’s real-life significant other), who not only played Rockefeller but helped with the script, Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky, Valeria Golino as Diego’s ex-wife Lupé, and Antonio Banderas and Ashley Judd as other friends of the couple. All in all, this film aptly honors one of the most interesting and tragic love stories in the history of art, and erases any doubts about the “seriousness” of Hayek’s technique. *****

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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