Volume 134, Issue 6
Oil paint is balm for tormented Mexican Surrealist
By Jennifer Roolf
With these words a young Frida Kahlo hauls herself out of her wheelchair. Her jaw set and her eyes glistening with pain, she takes a few awkward, halting steps toward her stunned parents.
The camera tilts and swerves, and the audience stumbles with her across the courtyard. Frida reaches her parents and whoops with joy.
In this and many other moments in Frida, Salma Hayek surpasses expectation in her portrayal of the tormented Mexican artist.
Hayek, who has been committed to this project for almost ten years, bears a strong physical resemblance to Kahlo and clearly embraces the role with her entire being. She plays Frida convincingly at all ages -- from a precocious, lustful teenager to a tired, middle-aged woman.
At 5 feet 2 inches she is the perfect height to portray the diminutive artist. She even bears Frida's signature unibrow and mustache.
Kahlo develops her artistic skills while recovering from a brutal streetcar accident, which leaves her with a broken spine, pelvis, and collarbone. She does not know if she will ever walk again. The residual trauma results in constant pain and a series of unsuccessful operations.
As she convalesces, the girl sketching butterflies on her body cast transforms into a serious young woman painting earnestly at an easel propped on her bed.
She travels to Mexico City to ask Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), a respected muralist, for a critique of her paintings. They become friends, then lovers, and spend the next twenty-five years together -- more or less. Any City College student who has walked through the lobby of our Diego Rivera Theater recognizes the awe and rapture on Frida's face as she gazes at his mural.
In marriage they pledge not fidelity to each other but loyalty. Their tumultuous romance forms the film's central narrative.
His infidelities cause Frida emotional anguish, and her balm is oil paint.
Her friend and lover, Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), tells Frida that her paintings "express what everyone believes: that they are alone and in pain."
Director Julie Taymor employs touches of surrealism to give Frida's paintings life and meaning.
For example, after Diego's harshest transgression, an inconsolable Frida cuts off her hair. The dimly lit scene is scored by an a cappella female voice as Frida's thick tresses pile on the floor.
The camera pans from Frida's reflection in a mirror to a doorway, through which we see the painting, "Self Portrait With Cropped Hair."
This Frida wears a gray man's suit and sits erect, meeting the viewer's gaze. Then the painted image drops her head and slouches, desolation surfacing from under the brave, masculine façade.
When she is charismatic and powerful, Frida wears red. When she is in emotional or physical pain, somber hues dominate the sets and costumes. The scenes in Mexico glow with a dusty, golden warmth. In New York City, the light is almost clinical, achromatic and ashen.
The film glosses over a few aspects of Frida's life. Frida's extramarital affairs -- with men and women -- get a thin treatment.
Her political convictions are largely reduced to cinematic devices. There is much banter about revolution. Partygoers recite political platitudes. Communist Party members march about, looking busy.
But there is no discussion of Mexico's political ills, or of the Mexicanism movement that inspires Frida to adopt her trademark traditional dress.
Also, the couple's financial situation is sometimes unclear. One scene after bemoaning their lack of funds, the pair is living in a new, custom-built home.
Overall, however, the film is memorable and moving, with a strong cast (including Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas, and Valeria Golino). The brilliant and creative cinematography illustrates the revelatory message of Frida's life: If it can be painted, it can be endured.