DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
FRIDA (director: Julie Taymor; screenwriters: based on the book by Hayden Herrera/Clancy Sigal/Diane Lake/Gregory Nava/Anna Thomas/Ms. Herrera; cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto; editor: Francoise Bonnot; music: Elliot Goldenthal; cast: Salma Hayek (Frida Kahlo), Alfred Molina (Diego Rivera), Ashley Judd (Tina Modott), Geoffrey Rush (Leon Trotsky), Antonio Banderas (David Alfaro Siqueiros), Edward Norton (Nelson Rockefeller). Roger Rees (Frida's Father), Patricia Reyes Spíndola (Frida's Mother), Saffron Burrows (Gracie), Valeria Golino (Lupe Marin), Mia Maestro (Cristina Kahlo), Diego Luna (Alejandro, Frida's first boyfriend); Runtime: 127; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Sarah Green/Salma Hayek/Jay Polstein/Lizz Speed/ Nancy Hardin/Lindsay Flickinger/Roberto Sneider; Miramax Films; 2002)

 
"... its many grand artistic touches introduced throughout can't compensate for the libertine spirit that's missing in telling Frida's story."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A flat biopic with the saving graces of some fanciful photographic touches provided by the great cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto that keep it mildly alive. "Frida" got the artist's flamboyance and splash just about right but could never get to the inner pain that made the artist paint from her experience and suffering. Director Julie Taymor ("Titus"and the Broadway play "The Lion King") who is noted mostly as a theater and puppet artist and the many screenwriters including the author of Frida Kahlo's biography, Hayden Herrera, and Ms. Hayek's boyfriend Edward Norton, who is not credited but who put the finishing touches on the script when he wasn't performing as Nelson Rockefeller, could never come up with an adequate script to give their artist subject the pulsating presentation she deserved. They could never show and tell how the humanistic artist could still admire Stalin's brand of brutality and communism (which she did even though the film tries to smooth that over by never saying an ill word about its untouchable heroine), and it also failed to show how Frida's work captured the universal loneliness and pain she was suffering from. All the film seems willing to go to the mat for, is to tick off a laundry list off the artist's lifetime accomplishments and why the filmmaker deems her to be a great artist and a role model for Mexican women. These are shabby aims when an in-depth character study of Frida has much more than that to be mined. 

"Frida" results in a safe, old-fashioned Hollywood-like biopic about an artist who endured great physical pain all her life and who was a shut-in and an adventurer and a fiercely independent personality. Frida is paraded before us as an avowed Communist born to a German Jewish father and a conservative Catholic Mexican mother; a feminist and an outsider; a bisexual (affairs with Josephine Baker and Gracie, a New York sophisticate Diego also took to bed); as someone who was promiscuous and had an affair with Leon Trotsky and mingled with other famous people yet led a lonely life; someone stuck in a stormy marriage to the womanizing artist twenty one years her senior, Diego Rivera; and, someone who always lived close to the edge. The film could have done much better then get her cosmetic look almost right while honing in on her need to wear Mexican peasant dresses to cover up her many physical scars (Frida was very hairy and was noted for the wild look her unmanageable eyebrows gave her, facts which the filmmaker almost completely ignored). The beautiful, diminutive Mexican actress Salma Hayek who plays Frida and had a lifelong ambition to play that role, co-produced the film with a host of others and thereby beat out other actresses such as Madonna and J. Lo who also wanted the part. Ms. Hayek never quite embarrasses herself but her performance never gets to the heart of the artist or gives her soul.

This biopic about such an unconventional subject who died nearly half a century ago and has been revived by Ms. Herrara's book and raised to icon status including first-name celebrity recognition, called for a script that wasn't as straightforward. It needed one that could exploit the passions of such an animated painter and to bring about a feeling of real movement and adventure and struggle for a woman who was dying all her life but goes all out to live a full life. The film didn't do this, as it failed to get to the real person and spent all its time on surface material and marriage spats that looked like artificial acting devices even though the actors had a good screen chemistry together. It came up with only hints of how exciting her passion for art was, as it opted to waste time by shooting so many unnecessary scenes of her meeting celebs by accident and by too many close-ups of her and her famous gargantuan-sized artist husband Diego Rivera as played by Alfred Molina. His mugging for the camera stole whatever acting honors there are for such a failed film, as in all honesty he was so overwhelming that the film could have just as easily been titled "Diego." But what ultimately brings the film down, is the prosaic dialogue. One example is when Frida tells Diego after not seeing him for some time: "You lost weight." He responds: "And, you lost your toes." This comes after she lost her toes when gangrene set in. The dialogue throughout was just as turgid and meaningless.

What did work and showed the potential the film had if it could get away from the conventional treatment of its subject, was the extraneous artistic shots of Frida's paintings brought to life in a surreal manner ala MTV filming techniques. Also, to Ms. Taymor's credit, she intelligently provides at times inspired touches such as – stop motion action shots, color tinting in brightly exotic desert shades, finely textured black-and-white sequences, shots of Diego in New York to do the Rockefeller commissioned mural against a lively Dadaist collage of the New York setting, Frida's dream of her hubby as King Kong, a puppet show in the hospital (with the help of the gifted Quay brothers animations of skeletons in the post-accident emergency room--the skeletons were copied from one of Frida's paintings). But by bringing in a host of cameo performances, all with silly foreign accents (Ashley Judd as a photographer sporting a Russian accent as if she's from Kentucky and the Australian actor Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky, who is never able to overcome sounding more Australian than Russian), it took away from the film's energy and left it stuck in the usual banality reserved for such Hollywood biopics. It's a shame to think what could have been accomplished in better hands than these controlling sensibilities exhibited by the not-ready-for-prime time filmmaker Ms. Taymor and the ever-present authority figure Ms. Hayek. After all, it's amazing to comprehend what Frida has gone through in her over 30 surgical operations endured from age 18—when her torso was flattened and impaled in a Mexico City trolley accident—until her death at 47. She deserved more gravitas and more of a look at her delicate nature and at the fierceness she managed in her surreal art than this barely adequate but too mild telling of her life could muster.

The film's most charged scene is when the electric trolley Frida was on got hit by a bus, leaving her in pain and covered with gold dust and the metal handrail that pierced her pelvis and passed through her vagina. Frida was hurt so badly doctors did not think she would ever walk again, and she was also never able to bear children.

It's most unfortunate that the film could never get at the artist Frida was and the tremendous will power she had to live such a full life despite her hardships. That's where the film really disappoints and its many grand artistic touches introduced throughout can't compensate for the libertine spirit that's missing in telling Frida's story. It's the story of a genius artist who is engulfed in a lifetime pool of blood and tears that gives her the foundation for her art to flourish, but here Frida is played by a proud actress ill prepared to get into such depths and who only sees Frida from the selfish standpoint of getting a juicy role.

REVIEWED ON 12/14/2002     GRADE: C

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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