The film biography of Mexican painter and pop culture icon Frida Kahlo, directed by Julie Taymor (Titus), tells Frida's life story in relatively straightforward, consecutive order, taking us from her school days where she taunts muralist Diego Rivera as he comes on to a nude model, to her death at age 47 and her wry parting remark: "I hope the end is joyful and I hope never to come back."
That this turns out to be a biography by chronological sequence is, in fact, one of the surprises of Frida, a movie whose pre-release publicity promised visual innovation and imaginative treatment. The script, penned by at least four screenwriters (always a bad sign), turns out to be the least imaginative element in what is otherwise a visual and musical treat.
Salma Hayek certainly has the look, the exotic combination of Mexican and Semitic origins, which Kahlo shared and which has been immortalized on everything from shopping bags to lamps to portable car shrines in recent years. Dressed in bright folk costumes with elaborately braided hair ornaments, she captures all that we know of Kahlo except her despair, her worldliness, her sophistication and her passion as a painter. Yes, we see Frida paint, but usually with the same amount of concentration afforded a crossword puzzle by a compulsive puzzler. As depicted here, Kahlo is far more interested in her husband Rivera's work and won her international fame practically by serendipity.
Kahlo's well-known mutilation in a trolley accident is staged unforgettably by Taymor, but Hollywood dictates that Frida, though permanently maimed, is left with the body of a Victoria's Secret model. The script, directorial choices like this one, and Hayek's range as an actor ultimately limit the film's emotional impact. Hayek is perfectly suited to the role, but rarely takes the viewer deeper than the surface of her character, except in high dramatic moments as when Frida suffers an excruciating miscarriage.
Alfred Molina practically steals the movie with his big-bear portrait of the Communist champion and mural painter Rivera -- larger than life, wild, gentle, flawed and thoroughly lovable. Molina put on some 30 pounds for the role and absolutely captures the irresistibility of Rivera, a womanizer and booze hound from whom an ounce of affection cured a pound of disillusionment.
The supporting roles are barely worth mentioning except to say that the screenwriters should have reconsidered most of the embarrassing lines they gave Geoffrey Rush as Leon Trotsky with whom Frida enjoyed a brief affair.
What's worthwhile, indeed sublime, about Frida is the production design, the art direction and the exquisite musical soundtrack. Here we see great imaginative leaps: news collages come to life, portraits melt into their real-life subjects, and life exists in a whirl of color, tone and motion. Mexico street scenes in vivid color and atmospheric wash place the film in geographical location, culture and time.
The most unforgettable scenes are musical. Composer Elliot Goldenthal, who also happens to be the husband of Taymor, penned the score and orchestrated many Mexican standards for what is the richest soundtrack of any movie this year. A sultry tango between Hayek and Ashley Judd is lusty and gorgeously played. Mariachi accentuates the film's movement from scene to scene. And 90-year-old singer Chavela Vargas, a real-life lover of Kahlo's many years ago, delivers the film's most chilling interlude -- a mournful close-up solo of "La Llorona," sung directly to a wide-eyed Hayek in anticipation of Frida's death. It is a rich, spooky and breathtaking moment.
-- Kathryn Eastburn