Frida (2002)

Director: Julie Taymor

Stars: Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush, Antonio Banderas, Diego Luna

Release Company: Miramax

MPAA Rating: R    

It would be so easy and politically correct to heap praises on Frida—and most other critics living in areas with a large Mexican population have given glowing reviews. Here in Phoenix tickets for a free sneak preview were grabbed up within minutes, and the first matinee showings played to capacity crowds to audiences that applauded during the closing credits. Also, how can anyone say bad things about a project that has long been a lifetime dream of its producer/star Salma Hayek, who successfully staved off superstars Jennifer Lopez and Madonna from playing the part and worked with the limited Miramax budget to bring Frida to fruition?

Frida successfully parallels Gandhi as a biopic, but Attenborough’s banal epic is one of the most overrated films in history. Both films contain embarrassing clichés and only superficially chronicle their subject’s basic time line without offering insights into their characters, making their biggest contribution by sparking interest in the enigmatic characters that will cause people to dig deeper on their own.

A committee of four credited screenwriters (along with other unlisted writers) transform Hayden Herrera’s book Frida: a Biography of Frida Kahlo into a screenplay as straightforward as Herrera’s book title. Beginning in 1922 when Frida is a student, the film serves up highlights of her life the trolley crash that causes her a lifetime of pain, hooking up with famous muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), a romantic fling with Leon Trotsky and Josephine Baker, and the requisite family and personal death scenes.

Of course, Salma Hayek will bare her bosom enough for marketing purposes, but she demonstrates that she’s a far better actress than her reputation. Remarkably resembling Kahlo in appearance, Hayek competently portrays Frida’s vulnerability and rage with a performance that will likely attract a few Academy votes, but the real standout performance comes from Molina, who plays Rivera with exuberance, huge Mexican machismo, humor, and great sensitivity. The best scene belongs to Molina and Edward Norton in a cameo as Nelson Rockefeller, where forces of political correctness and principle collide over the magnificent mural Rivera has been commissioned to paint in Rockefeller Center. Loyal Communist party member Rivera boldly paints Lenin into the painting, figuring that Rockefeller certainly won’t lay waste to the project after the large investment of time and money. Liberals don’t take hard core artistic or ideological stances, however, effectively illustrated in the most memorable scene from the movie.

From that great scene and from many other excellent scenes involving Molina, it’s puzzling that the film isn’t titled “Diego” or “Frida and Diego.” But that must have been either a marketing decision (people arent going to pay to see a heft Molina naked), or at the insistence of producer Hayek.

The pedestrian story line has other treasures, however, when you focus on the film’s visual style. Best known for her stage direction on the Broadway musical The Lion King, Julie Taymor dazzles the eye with creative visuals, from the bluebird burst and gold dust sprinkling during the trolley accident, to the three dimensional Kahlo portraits, to the Diego as “King Kong” imagery, to the bright Mexican color palates throughout. If nothing else, the production design ranks as some of the most artistic in recent memory.

It’s just too bad that more substance isn’t part of the design. Films about creative artists are difficult to make because the genius is hard to translate cinematically. Taymor gives it a try by providing a few Kahlo paintings and having Diego explain how her work combines beauty and pain, but rarely does the film show this concept. Just once does this emotional connection come across—after Frida’s late term miscarriage, she insists on seeing her bottled son, and paints a devastating canvas. Diego can only cry when gazing at it, and I felt a twinge myself. Had Frida contained more moments like this, it would forever stand as an excellent biopic instead of wallowing in mediocrity. Since Taymor shows flashes of brilliance, it’s a pity that the project paints by the numbers so much.