Wednesday 11 November 2015

Movie Review: Frida (2002)

A biopic of Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo, Frida is filled with passion and deeply-felt human emotions. Salma Hayek shines in the central role, but the script does suffer from some wayward targeting.

As a young girl in Mexico, Frida (Hayek) develops a crush on painter, communist and hopeless womanizer Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina). After getting caught up in a severe bus crash, Frida's life hangs in the balance, and she suffers severe injuries to her back and legs. After many months she eventually recovers enough to resume her life, dedicating herself to painting and reconnecting with Diego. They get married, with Frida understanding that Diego can never be faithful, but he promises to at least be loyal to her.

Frida does not hide her bisexual tendencies, and establishes close relationships with Diego's ex-wife Lupe MarĂ­n (Valeria Golino) and sultry mutual friend Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd). With Diego's star rising in the art world, the couple enjoy a stint in New York, with Diego winning a commission from Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton). But Frida suffers another personal tragedy, and Diego does manage to hurt his wife with his exceptional inability to resist any woman. A bizarre encounter with none other than Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), now a fugitive from the Russian revolution that he helped to inspire, completes the inspiration for Frida's works of art.

Directed with panache by Julie Taymor, Frida is a singularly engaging film. The Latin lust for life positively jumps off the screen, and even the most secondary of characters display an ardent desire to contribute. The mix of art, politics and sexuality is captured by Taymor in an intoxicating broth, and Frida benefits from an unabashed, proud and outspoken posture. Frida, Diego and their circle have little time for apologies, justifications or requests for permission: they dive into life with purposeful commitment, and the biography buzzes with the energy of people worth knowing.

At just over two hours, the film is packed with incident and never flags as entertainment. Taymor constructs Frida's life around several tragic milestones, starting with the harrowing bus crash, and tracks her evolution from fledgling classical artist to a woman able to capture life's agonies in surreal, grotesque and captivating images. Life throws plenty of challenges Frida's way, and she navigates through them with a headstrong determination to embrace each obstacle and remain in charge, no matter what. With short but plentiful scenes the film builds and maintains momentum consistent with a woman who throws back twice as hard.

The film does steal some focus away from its main character. Although the story is recounted from Frida's perspective and her emotions remain at the core of all events, much of the second half of the film does centre on Diego, and at least as much time is invested in his character development and artistic achievements. His unwillingness to compromise his politics and his inability to refrain from casual sex dominate large segments of screen time, with Frida reduced to victim, observer or both. While her life with Diego clearly influenced Frida's art, the film tilts the balance more towards Diego as the source of inspiration and less on Frida as the artist who drew stimulation from a fascinating man.

Salma Hayek is excellent at every stage of Frida's life, and allows the character's flaws, vulnerabilities, strengths and desires to meld into a complete person. Alfred Molina matches Hayek scene for scene, and although Diego's arc is simpler, Molina is able to demonstrate that an overweight and outspoken frumpy man can exert an inexorable and long-lasting force on women. Antonio Banderas gets a small role as a member of Diego's intellectual circle.

The film's visual aesthetic is frequently inspired by Frida's paintings, and Taymor cleverly weaves the artwork into the narrative scenes without drawing attention to them, allowing the sometimes gruesome beauty to speak for itself. Life inspires art, and Frida is a worthy celebration of a fascinating artist's tumultuous journey.

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