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Cinema Junkie by Beth Accomando


For more than a decade, filmmakers and actresses have been trying to bring the life of painter Frida Kahlo to the screen. Luiz Valdez and Laura San Giacomo were one of the first to attempt to film her biography but Latino groups protested that the actress needed to be a Latina. More recently, Madonna and Jennifer Lopez tried to get projects greenlit. But its Salma Hayek and director Julie Taymor who have persevered and their film Frida (opening November 8 at Hillcrest Cinemas) finally arrives in theaters after an eight year battle to get it made.

Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter who liked to claim that she was born the same year as the Mexican revolution, has inspired a cult following for both her life and her art. Her paintings were mostly self-portraits with a surreal flair for revealing her inner pain, turmoil and passion. Her life was marked by political activism, sexual freedom, a tumultuous marriage to mural painter Diego Rivera, and a determination to be true to herself. She became a feminist icon before feminism was even a term and a champion of ethnic pride before that was fashionable. No wonder actresses were fighting over the right to play her.

The film Frida, opens with the painter near the end of her life and then flashes back to her school days and the tragic trolley accident that left her crippled and in pain for the rest of her life. After being bed-ridden for months, Frida (Salma Hayek) takes up painting and eventually shows her work to Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina). Rivera, an already famous artist and an infamous womanizer, is impressed by her work and needless to say also attracted to Frida. Sharing a passion for paint and left-wing politics, the two quickly start an affair and eventually marry.

Diego promises to be loyal but not faithful, and even though Frida enters the marriage with her eyes wide open, the relationship takes its toll. At one point, Frida notes that shes had two painful accidents in her life one involving a trolley and the other with Diego, and she concludes that the one with Diego has been by far the more damaging. But despite attempts to part, the two keep coming back together.

The film might have been more accurately titled Frida and Diego because the film seems almost as interested in Rivera as in Kahlo. Maybe Kahlos story simply cant be told with telling Riveras but at times you get more insights into him than her. And although this is not necessarily a problem, you may feel a bit cheated by the fact that Kahlo is not a more dominant presence in the film.

The films main shortcoming, however, is that the passions behind the scenes havent translated to passion on the screen. Hayek may have fought ferociously to bring this project to the screen but once she steps into Kahlos shoes, she fails to ignite the screen with the fire that drove her to produce the film in the first place. And Kahlos story needs passion. Director Julie Taymor and star Hayek have reduced this extraordinary woman to the mere ranks of tormented artist trapped in a turbulent relationship. Kahlos politics and sexuality have been watered down and made more palatable for mainstream audiences.

The biggest disappointment in the film is that we dont get enough insight in what made Kahlo paint in the extraordinary and unique the way that she did. In recent films like Pollock and Vincent and Theo (about Jackson Pollock and Vincent Van Gogh respectively), we got a real sense of why and how these artists painted. There was a tactile feel for their work--a sense of texture and color--that made their art come vividly to life. Taymor takes the gimmicky approach of literally making Kahlos paintings come to life by having Hayek caked in paint and posed like three-dimensional, breathing incarnation of Kahlos paintings. While this has visual appeal, it really does nothing to illuminate Kahlos art. Taymor, who displayed such a stunningly effective design sense in her film debut Titus, fails to give Frida, a visual style that reflects the artist shes portraying. Kahlos paintings, being mostly self-portraits, stare out at us with a defiant, challenging glare and theres none of that defiance or provocation in Taymors film. Its a safe, traditional artists biography about a woman who was anything but safe and traditional. The match of Taymor with Kahlo initially seemed promising but Taymor reveals none of the ingenuity that made Titus and her stage version of the Lion King so innovation and jaw dropping.

Hayek is good as Frida and she grows into the role, finding more depth as the character ages. But the role tests Hayeks range. Shes a commendable actress who has won Hollywood success and yet has insisted n returning to Mexico to appear in uncommercial art house films like Arturo Ripsteins No One Writes the Colonel. But with Frida, she is called upon to carry the film and to fill in details left out by a very linear, superficial script and that places too much demand on her. Alfred Molina gives Rivera a teddy bear quality that seems to soften the character but overall his performance is compelling.

Frida, rated R, is like a rock skimming over the surface of a lakeits hits the surface at odd intervals but never really reaches any great depth. There are fine moments but the most compelling scenes turn out to be when the film shows us Kahlos paintings. These remarkable works are still provocative, brutal and dazzling. In a single painting, Kahlo reveals more of herself and with far greater artistry than all of Taymors film. But at least the film does shine the spotlight on a remarkable woman and artist. It doesnt place her on a pedestal nor does it turn her into a martyr. It tries to keep her a full-blooded character but in the end it only scratches the surface. Kahlo kept an amazing diary of her life and if the film could have given us a similar window into the artist than it would have truly been an amazing film.