Let’s start with the good news. Despite Madonna’s determination to make a Frida Kahlo biopic, she doesn’t make a single appearance here. Not as the celebrated artist. Not even as Tina Modotti, the kinky Commie. So yes, it’s safe to go to the theater to see what Frida’s lead actress and guiding light, Salma Hayek, a quartet of writers, and director Julie Taymor have wrought.
Just don’t go expecting too very much. Given the low standards of the artist biopic genre, Frida is pretty enjoyable. The film isn’t as much of a drag as Ed Harris’ recent dogged turn as Jackson Pollock (Pollock, 2000), or as preposterous as Anthony Hopkins’ incarnation of Picasso in 1996’s Surviving Picasso. No, Frida sends you back out into the world happy enough, but it does so at a cost–by toning down both Kahlo’s pain and her labors as an artist. The art itself is treated beautifully. Director Taymor, of Lion King (the play) fame, uses her considerable image-making power to literally bring Frida’s portraits to life. But we see little of Kahlo’s own hard work. Instead Frida spends almost as much time serving lunch to the great men in her life as she does painting the Little Deer or Las Dos Fridas.
For all of Taymor’s surrealistic flourishes, the story is told in a conventional manner. We begin with a scene of Frida, near death, being carried out of her house (the beautifully photographed Casa Azul) in Mexico City’s Coyoacan neighborhood. She’s lying in her poster bed, apparently dead, and being carried by four men. While the apparent pallbearers ease through her patio, a peacock steps into view, as if to bid Frida adieu from this vale of tears. But when the bearers jostle the bed a bit, the mustachioed corpse of Frida opens its eyes and says, “Careful, boys, I’m still alive.” She’s not dead–she’s en route to her first major Mexico City exhibition, an honor that came only near the end of her life.
From this rather jaunty opening, the film flashes back to scenes of a teenaged Frida racing through the streets of el centro, her boyfriend Alejandro (Diego Luna of Y Tu Mamá También) in tow. It’s 1925 and Alejandro and some of her other friends are leaving the Preparatoria Nacional, their intellectually supercharged high school, where the already famous Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) happened to be painting one of his murals. As Hayden Herrera’s biography, Frida, (the film’s source) makes clear, Frida’s real life crowd was more sophisticated than the teenagers in Y Tu Mamá También. They used to taunt their philosophy teacher for being afraid to take on Hegel, for example. When Frida asks them to go back into the school with her to watch the famous Rivera at work, they sneer at the man who was by then already disgraced in some leftist circles for taking government commissions. But when Frida tells them that he’s got a naked woman with him, they race back, hoping no doubt to catch the legendary, if physically improbable, ladies’ man getting busy with his model. Instead they were in for a better treat–Rivera’s wife Lupe Marín (Valeria Golino) bursts into the room to accuse him of having yet another affair. The wife storms out, the kids taunt Rivera, then run when he busts out his pistola.
This early scene and the one that follows, depicting the life-threatening accident that left Kahlo partially crippled and unable to bear children–and also provided her with the subject matter for most of her paintings–showcase all of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. For starters, the dialogue is too bald, too literal. When Rivera’s wife confronts him and the model, the best she can muster is something like “are you fucking her, too?” This might have might have come off as something other than a cliché if Golino wasn’t playing Marín as such a red hot chili pepper. Problems with flat dialogue, designed more to convey information than to inform character, deflate the entire film, especially when pamphlet-length political arguments are forced into a couple of lines, as when Rivera and muralist David Siqueiros (Antonio Banderas) confront each other over a bottle of tequila. (And, yes, over a pistol as well, during a very boisterous and otherwise nicely filmed party sequence.)
Hayek, as Frida, is hit and miss here. In later scenes, when Frida is in greater physical and emotional pain, she is not up to the task. If there’s a physically healthier person on the planet than Salma Hayek, I’d like to meet her. Her talent is mostly for comedy, particularly physical comedy. Frida’s depths elude her–but not Frida’s mischievousness and sense of daring. During this same party scene, Hayek is at her best, as she wins a dance with Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd) by out-chugging Rivera for the honor. When she seals the deal by passionately kissing Modotti at the tango’s end, Hayek has shown us Frida’s ability to dominate a stage occupied by physically larger figures. And in this same scene, Taymor has also captured something of that magical, larger-than-life Mexico of the 1920s, when giants strode the earth, pistolas and paintbrushes a la mano.
The difference between the party sequence and most of the rest of the film is instructive. Here Taymor and the screenwriters took their collective foot off the gas and gave us a fully rendered scene, one that has it own beginning, middle and end. But most of the time, they’re driving faster than the reckless bus driver who cost Frida her health. The entire Frida/Diego/Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) story goes by so fast that I can’t imagine what it would mean to someone not already familiar with the story.
Still, it’s easy to recommend this film, thanks to Taymor’s best moments, and to Alfred Molina’s portrayal of Diego. Taymor’s inventiveness is not limited to bringing Frida’s images to life. Other scenes are just as stunning, as when young Frida is injured and winds up both crucified (albeit through the pelvis), and covered in a shower of gold dust. Even better is the following scene, when Frida’s doctors first appear to her as muertitos, the living skeletons that turn up everywhere in Mexican popular culture. In another moment of visual inspiration, Diego and Frida take Manhattan. Or Diego does, anyway, as Frida tires of the gringos faster than her husband, who’s living large in the Stork Club while negotiating with the likes of Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton, who apparently also had the final go at the script) to paint the mural that Rockefeller would later destroy. Taymor follows Frida to a screening of King Kong, where the artist is seen laughing at the exploits of the giant ape. The director then leaps to the Empire State Building, where Diego himself, looking even larger than usual, is scaling the skyscraper–Frida in hand, of course.
I wish that the film had been more Taymor and less Hollywood. Taymor never uses her visual powers to bring Frida’s actual process of painting to life–only the results, the paintings themselves. If she had given a visual jolt to the scenes of Frida at the easel, Kahlo would have been firmly established at the center of the tale. As it is, she’s occasionally overcome by the Diegos and Trotskys in her life.
It’s Molina’s Diego who finally humanizes the film, and makes it into something more than an interesting slideshow. When I’d heard that the film was finally going to be made, I couldn’t imagine how this make-or-break role would be cast. Frida herself came in so many shapes, guises, and disguises–she was such an actress, in short–that you can imagine her being portrayed on the screen. But who in the history of cinematic acting has ever suggested Diego Rivera in all his passion, intelligence, tenderness, cruelty, and obesity? Molina’s performance brings the film to life. He’s been a compelling, but relatively minor figure in various other films. (He was the only good thing in Chocolat.) Here he makes Diego into something more than a mosaic of interesting qualities. He brings the various Diegos together into a compelling, completely believable whole–even though he is occasionally dragged down by the stiff dialogue.
So, Frida is a mixed bag–but one that is worth opening for a look.
David Theis’ novel, Rio Ganges, is set in Mexico City.
BY ANGELA MOSCARELLA
Poor Salma Hayek! After 10 years in Hollywood, all she wanted to do was come home, show off her film, and be inundated with praise for bringing a Mexican cultural icon to the silver screen.
Alas, it was not to be. The Dolores del Río wannabe did get her very own evening gala at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. But she has been ripped apart by the increasingly aggressive Mexican press corps. Her film sparked fury and ridicule from critics, who were piqued by her efforts to make a movie palatable to a U.S. audience, beginning with an American director who shot in English and hired non-Mexican actors for all the major roles (except Hayek as Frida). At the Mexico City press screening, there were hisses and loud guffaws. When Frida praises a typical Mexican dish and exclaims fervently, “Wonderful mole!” several reporters burst into laughter.
Hayek, who co-produced the film, lashed back with a series of interviews, television appearances, and press conferences. During an appearance on the highly popular television show Otro Rollo, she tried to defend the use of the English language and foreign actors. “There already is an excellent movie on Frida in Spanish with Mexican actors,” she said, referring to the 1984 film by Mexican director Paul Leduc, Frida, Naturaleza viva. (Although Mexican actress Ofelia Medina delivered a commanding performance in the title role, the non-commercial film was considered excessively slow-moving.)
“I wanted to show Frida to the world,” Hayek said, adding that to do so, she needed a big-budget, Hollywood production. Moreover, she insisted that the well-known actors in the film worked for much less than their usual pay: “They did it for Mexico and they charged the minimum salary.”
But Hayek had already gotten off to a bad start by telling the Mexico City daily La Jornada that she didn’t care what the critics said about her. She recalled an anecdote about her father in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, and a parrot named Paco. “My father read the papers every day, and the next morning he used them for the parrot …. So, this is my philosophy: ‘What they say about me today, will be dirtied by the parrot tomorrow.'”
Presumably Paco has been very busy. Two days after the press screening, Mexican society columnist and author Guadalupe Loaeza wrote two scathing reviews of Frida in the Mexico City daily Reforma. “I am afraid the real Frida would not have liked it,” she concluded. “I’m sure she would have even stood up and walked out of the movie theater.” Loaeza pointed out that Frida hated gringos and would have cringed at hearing herself speak English. Diego Rivera would have stormed out as well; he comes off as a bumbling fool, obsessed only with women, with no mention of the turbulent and significant sociological, historical and political aspects of his era. “Salma’s Frida, even though very beautiful, has no soul,” wrote Loaeza. “I understand that playing Frida was a major challenge, but given her personality, the actress from the state of Veracruz was not up to it.”
“Surely Salma Hayek perfectly matches the idea the ‘gringos’ have of Frida Kahlo,” she continued, before delivering the fatal blow, ” but she certainly does not at all match our Frida…the rebellious and courageous woman who inspired the passion of someone like Leon Trotsky…and who was twice the wife of Diego Rivera.” (emphasis added)
Contrary to her “Paco the parrot” philosophy, an indignant Hayek went on still another television show, brandishing a copy of Reforma, and proclaiming that Loaeza was a lackluster writer. Still, all seemed forgiven in an interview with Loaeza that appeared the following Sunday in Reforma. Loaeza put forth her objections, and Hayek replied to them at length–and no one mentioned the quality of the acting. When Loaeza insisted that it bothered her deeply that the movie was in English, Hayek said that it made it easier for others to come to terms with an otherwise strange subject. After all, she pointed out, the American comedian Jay Leno went to see the movie against his will but was “blown away” by the film and wanted to see it again.
Frida opened in cinemas across Mexico on November 20–the holiday known as Día de la Revolución. Angela Moscarella is a writer in Mexico City.