Biographies have become one of the most popular and time-honored genres in film through their ability to both inform and inspire audiences in their accounts of the lives extraordinary individuals. Over time, however, the genre has become saturated with formulaic films that echo one another in tales of rags to riches and triumph over adversity that, while inspired by true events, border on cliché. Fortunately, this week’s review avoids the familiar trappings of the modern biography by chronicling the controversial art, political activism, and many loves of one art’s most pioneering women; Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo. The 2002 film Frida effectively chronicles Kahlo’s fascinating life, while also successfully capturing the innovative and radical spirit of her work in a biography that is anything but conventional.
|Art imitating life or life imitating art?|
The story begins in 1925 as a young Kahlo (Salma Hayek) attends college while pursuing her budding craft as a painter. Her life soon takes a difficult turn, however, when she is critically injured in a trolley accident in which she suffers a broken spinal column, broken pelvis, broken collarbone, and punctured uterus. She defies her doctors’ expectations however, when she not only survives the accident, but through months of painstaking work, is able to walk again. During her recovery, she throws herself into her art, producing a series of complex and unique paintings in which she finds her voice as an emerging artist. It is these paintings that eventually draw the attention of famed muralist and notorious libertine Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), who helps to promote her work and launch her career as a successful artist. Despite her wariness at his reputation as a womanizer, the two become fast friends as they bond over their shared passions for art and politics, which eventually develops into a tumultuous and fiery romance. The film then chronicles the couple’s controversial work in both art and political activism as they continually break-up and make-up, all the while supporting each other as artists and comrades. Through its insight into both her personal and professional lives the film captures the innovation and rebelliousness that made Kahlo an icon of modern art.
While the film does recount the most significant events in Kahlo’s life, its unique approach allows viewers additional insight into the experiences and unique perspective that fueled her pioneering art. For example, throughout the film, scenes are cut-away to show Kahlo’s impression of an event or character, which then segue into many of her most famous paintings. In this way, the film shows how the world around her influenced her perspective and led to her original approach to painting. The film also provides an unflinching look at her unconventional marriage and the ways in which her often fraught relationship with Rivera impacted her work. While many biographies tend to whitewash the historical figures that they focus upon, Frida presents a three dimensional portrait of Kahlo which includes her flaws and mistakes as well as her triumphs. For instance, rather than portray her as a victim of Rivera’s many infidelities the film makes a point to include the fact that she was aware of his philandering before their marriage and even reveals her own extra-marital indiscretions with both men and women. The film also features insight into the couple’s radical politics through its depiction of Rivera’s controversial Rockefeller Center mural and their mutual efforts to aid fugitive Soviet leader Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) as he fled Stalin’s assassins. Through this multifaceted depiction of its heroine, the film provides a truly informative and compelling portrait of an artist, as a family member, political activist, wife, and woman.
|An icon at work|
The uniformly superb cast successfully brings each of their diverse characters to life in such a way as to remind audiences of their significance beyond their impact upon Kahlo’s life and career. Cameo appearances by Antonio Banderas, Edward Norton, and Ashley Judd help place Kahlo’s life within the context of the historical events of her day, while still lending depth to their roles as David Alfaro Siqueiros, Nelson Rockefeller, and Tina Modotti. Patricia Reyes Spindola and Roger Rees bring the complexity of the Kahlo home to life in nuanced performances as Kahlo’s stern mother and supportive father, revealing the ways in which her family encouraged her unconventional path in an era in which women were often relegated to secondary roles. Geoffrey Rush brings wry humor and pathos to his role as the tormented Trotsky, as he portrays the political figure less as a revolutionary icon and more as a man trying to make a difference in the world, leaving viewers with little wonder as to how Kahlo is tempted into embarking upon an affair with him. Mia Maestro and Valeria Golino make excellent foils in their performances as Kahlo’s sweet, but meek, sister, Cristina, and fiery romantic rival turned friend, Lupe. Alfred Molina is a burst of charisma and energy in his portrayal of Rivera, in which he provides viewers with insight into the couple’s unusual relationship and reveals why neither was able to give up on their troubled relationship. Despite the excellent performances surrounding her, the film belongs to Salma Hayek, whose turn as Kahlo highlights her humor, tenderness, determination, insecurities, and loss all with a ferocity worthy of the real Kahlo.
More than just a biography, Frida is a romance, inspirational drama, political exploration, and artistic journey all in one. Through a combination of thorough research and nuanced writing, the script provides a compelling account of an iconic artist and the world that she inhabited. Each of the performances bring an additional level of depth and emotion to the film, making each event in Kahlo’s life resonate, even for viewers already familiar with her story. At her Mexican exhibition in 1954 Rivera described Kahlo’s work as “acid and tender, hard as steel and fine as a butterfly’s wing…loveable as a smile and cruel as the bitterness of life” all these phrases and more could aptly describe Frida.
|Life is grand with tequila in hand|