Salma Hayek has dreamt of making a biographical picture about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo for a long while. She’s finally succeeded, and it must be said at once that the result is extremely handsome. “Frida” has been directed by Julie Taymor with the same visual verve and flash that she brought to the Broadway version of “The Lion King” (and, to a lesser extent, to her feature debut “Titus”). The screen is constantly filled with rich, colorful images, beautifully captured by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; the production design (by Felipe Fernandez del Paso), art direction (by Bernardo Trujillo) and costume design (by Julie Weiss) exude lavishness despite a budget that was probably relatively modest; and at irregular intervals characters are inserted into cartoonish, almost surrealistic backgrounds presumably patterned on Kahlo’s own paintings–an impressive effect. (Even a terrible bus accident near the beginning of the picture is shot with such splendor that it’s almost beautiful.) With a lovely, evocative score by Elliot Goldenthal to complement the pictures, “Frida” looks and sounds great.
Unhappily, the picture’s content doesn’t match its surface. Kahlo, the long-suffering wife of mural artist Diego Rivera and a talented painter herself, is a fascinating figure, whose short but checkered life included not only many tribulations but contacts with important figures, including the exiled Leon Trotsky. But the treatment by no fewer than four scriptwriters dramatizes it in only the broadest brush strokes, and the result seems like an old-fashioned, Hollywoodish biopic, oddly unimaginative in everything but its visuals. Ultimately, the story of a woman who overcame terrible physical difficulties, an incessantly philandering spouse and inveterately anti-female bias to become a strong person and forceful artist in her own right–a narrative that should have been harsh, edgy and challenging–has been turned into something akin to a standard-issue women’s picture.
That’s really a pity, because the cast is very strong. Hayek ably catches Kahlo’s transformation from ebullient youngster to confident woman with grace and beauty; even if the picture’s middle section fails to keep us cognizant of the physical pain the painter must constantly live with, it’s a strong, effective turn. She’s ably supported by Alfred Molina as Rivera–a big, bear-like figure who proves sympathetic and loving despite his flaws–and Geoffrey Rush makes a gaunt, courtly Trotsky. (The lead characters’ devotion to a humanistically socialist line, happily, isn’t slighted to serve current political preferences.) In small supporting roles Ashley Judd (as photographer Tina Modotti) and Antonio Banderas (as radical painter David Alfaro Siqueiros) make solid if unspectacular impressions, and Edward Norton is deft as Nelson Rockefeller, who clashes with Rivera over a mural the artist is commissioned to paint in New York. (Movie trivia: another fine young actor, John Cusack, played the same part in Tim Robbins’ “Cradle Will Rock” in 1999.) Elsewhere Roger Rees stands out as Guillermo, Frida’s loving, supportive father.
Indeed, there are so many good things in Taymor’s elegant film that it might seem churlish to describe the picture as a near-miss. But ultimately Hayek’s energy, Molina’s charm and Rush’s graciousness, as well as their director’s flamboyantly expressive approach to the material, aren’t quite sufficient to overcome the script’s deficiencies. The story of Frida Kahlo should have been something more than a conventionally inspiring story of, as the press hacks invariably put it, the indomitability of the human spirit; it should have taken some narrative chances as well as Taymor’s purely cinematic ones. Though its subject was darker and more driven, the recent “Pinero,” despite its failings, did so, and “Frida” could have used some of that film’s willingness to take risks.
“Frida” can therefore be recommended to viewers ready to accept a visually fetching but comparatively superficial biography of its subject. It’s too bad, however, that the opportunity wasn’t taken to dig more deeply into Kahlo’s personal and professional life.