The Good: Excellent acting, Directing, Visual style, Character
The Bad: Important gaps in character
The Basics: The biography of Frida Kahlo is excellently portrayed by Selma Hayek with amazing direction and directoral vision.
For a long time after American Beauty won the Best Picture Oscar, I waited for a movie that actually was the best picture of the year to win. That Gladiator won was disgusting to me, that A Beautiful Mind won was sad - though predictable - and that Chicago won was so disappointing as to not even be worth mentioning. Whenever I complain about the movie that actually won the Best Picture, I try to provide at least two films I know are better than whatever won. Worthy of usurping Chicago was The Two Towers and now, I would make an argument for Frida.
Frida tells the story of little-known Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Kahlo's genius as an artist starts as a young woman. When she is nearly killed in a trolley accident, she recovers by getting the attention of visiting artist Diego Rivera. Kahlo and Rivera begin a tumultuous relationship that is complicated by Rivera's infidelity, Kahlo's health problems and the pair's political philosophies and artistic integrity. As Marxists, Kahlo and Rivera find themselves the subject of controversy abroad and their lives, though difficult, are inextricably bound together.
The magic of Frida is that it manages to tell the story of a strong woman without being overbearing. Instead, Kahlo is portrayed as an eminently practical woman who is simply following her dreams. Without trying to be, Frida comes across as courageous and the most admirable type of woman; one who does what she wants, is bound only by her own integrity and becomes actualized despite adversity.
That Frida is based on a real person or attempts to accurately portray the life of Frida Kahlo, the historic persona, makes the movie no less enjoyable. The reason this film succeeds is that it never feels like a biography, nor like it is trying to glorify Kahlo. Instead, director Julie Taymor creates a film that is visually stunning and moves at a fairly fast pace. Taymor's use of color, especially, is magnificent. There is great contrast throughout the movie between the inorganic blues and bright reds and the browns and tans of the desert environment. Taymor has an eye for color that mirror's Kahlo's own. Taymor's film ultimately comes across as an extended painting, incorporating many of Kahlo's.
Selma Hayek brings Kahlo to life and it is no surprise to watch all of the DVD extras to discover that Hayek fought long and hard to get the movie made. As Kahlo was a personal hero of Hayek, her portrayal of Kahlo comes from a personal history of great research, making this perhaps the definitive biography of Frida Kahlo. Hayek does more than bring a great figure and a monobrow to the role; she moves with a grace and profound sense of reclusive dignity that comes across in all of Kahlo's self-portraits. Watching this movie, it becomes inconceivable that anyone else could portray Kahlo.
Hayek's magnificent performance - and she was robbed for the Best Actress awards - is supported by an equally wonderful performance by Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera. Molina plays Rivera as a spirited individual, much like Ruben Blades did in Cradle Will Rock. Their performances differ, though, as Molina makes River much less flamboyant and more reluctant about his own sense of greatness. With the emphasis on Kahlo in Frida, Molina's Rivera lives much more in his wife's shadow, acknowledging the superiority of Kahlo's work. Never does Molina's Rivera seem selfish about this fact, making his performance even more wrenching.
The supporting cast of Frida is highlighted by Roger Rees, who plays Frida's father, Guillermo. Rees - perhaps best known as Robin Coldcort on Cheers - does an amazing job at portraying one of the most influential people in Kahlo's formative process. Rees creates a sympathetic and inwardly strong character that makes it clear how Frida would develop into such a headstrong person. It becomes almost inconceivable, then, that Frida would show the death of Kahlo's mother, but not Guillermo.
In fact, this omission is one of the few problems with this otherwise truly great film. So many other important facets of Frida Kahlo's character are addressed, most notably, her ability to stay with an unfaithful man like Diego Rivera, that the absence of her father's death becomes difficult to swallow. Still, Frida manages to explore a complex and vivacious individual. Kahlo's passion and powerful sexuality flow through her life and this movie.
Who will enjoy Frida? Anyone with any taste. It's better than Chicago. Easily. The characters are compelling, strengthened by a strong sense of realism. And while all of the characters seem very genuine, the film is so visually complex that it never seems ordinary. The people behave like real people presented through an artistic lens that immediately engages the viewer without any cheap tricks like ridiculous songs and flashy sexuality. Why didn't Frida win Best Picture? Why wasn't it even nominated? It certainly wasn't for the quality of the cast, the direction or the characters. Perhaps some mysteries of taste will never be solved.
Fortunately, Frida exists to remind us that style and substance can blend and that quality need not lack flair.
For other works featuring Salma Hayek, be sure to visit my reviews of:
30 Rock - Season Three
Across The Universe
For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all of my movie reviews!
© 2012, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
| | |