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Frida - Selma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Antonio Banderas, Julie Taymor

Threat advisory: High - High risk of entertaining activities

Movie propaganda

This film tells the true story of Mexican painter and 20th century icon Frida Kahlo (Selma Hayek), focusing on her often Rocky relationship with husband Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), and their place in Mexican society.

Included in the mix is David Siqueiros (Antonio Banderas), Rivera's rival in the Mexican art world, Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd), a famed Italian photographer and Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton), who famously contracted Rivera to paint the lobby mural of Rockefeller Centre, only to renege because it included a portrait of Lenin.

Others in their social circle included Russian leader and refugee Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), muralist Jean Charlot, painter Pablo O'Higgins, composer Silvestre Revueltas and photographer Edward Weston. In addition to being a great artist, Frida Kahlo was also a bisexual and a communist, struggling with an abusive husband, a life of wracking pain following a trolley accident, the amputation of a leg and, finally, drug and alcohol abuse that killed her at age 47.

Theatrical propaganda posters

Frida image

Target demographic movie keyword propaganda

  • Film biography Frida Kahlo Mexico paint communism Diego Rivera art

Persons of interest

  • Selma Hayek .... Frida Kahlo
  • Alfred Molina .... Diego Rivera
  • Antonio Banderas .... David Siqueiros
  • Ashley Judd .... Tina Modotti
  • Edward Norton .... Nelson Rockefeller
  • Geoffrey Rush .... Leon Trotsky
  • Mía Maestro .... Cristina Kahlo
  • Valeria Golino .... Lupe Marín
  • Margarita Sanz .... Natalie Trotsky
  • Roger Rees .... Guillermo Kahlo
  • Patricia Reyes Spíndola .... Matilde Kahlo
  • Diego Luna .... Alejandro Gonzalez Arias
  • Hayden Herrera .... Author: Frida: a biography of Frida Kahlo
  • Rodrigo García .... Screenwriter
  • Gregory Nava .... Screenwriter
  • Edward Norton .... Screenwriter
  • Walter Salles .... Screenwriter
  • Anna Thomas .... Screenwriter
  • Julie Taymor .... Director

Cinematic intelligence sources

Intelligence analyst

Agent Provocateur Alexander Feld

Theatrical report

The biography is a difficult thing. Often about famous or infamous people, the telling of an often long, cumbersome and sometimes boring story is an inherent incumbrance to filmmakers. Biography, as a rule, is essentially uncinematic.

The genre of the artistic biography is thornier; the main obstacle being that it is virtually impossible to capture the creative process on film. Many nonetheless try, and the efforts tend to fall into two camps, real and surreal. The recent entries of Ed Harris (Pollock) and Julian Schnabel (Before night falls) are excellent efforts using realist techniques. These are essentially mainstream films about artsy types; movies that can be shown in art-house or shopping mall cinemas. At the other end are the biographies of Ken Russell. History tells us (and so does the music) that Tchaikovsky agonised over the Pathétique, but Russell, through daring surrealist methods bordering on the absurd, translates human suffering into the creative process and onto the screen. Although infinitely more rewarding, this is filmmaking for the connoisseur alone.

Frida, the recent film by Juliet Taymor, tries somewhat unhappily to fit on both sides of the fence. Although Taymor approaches the story in relatively realistic, chronological terms, there are surreal digressions that bow directly toward the Russell camp, with nods to Fellini and Bruñel. These alone are enough to make this an exceptional film; unfortunately, they are few.

For those who don't know, Frida is Frida Kahlo, the celebrated Mexican painter (1907-1954). Her work is as remarkable as it is unclassifiable; she is essentially a portraitist (more a self-portraitist, that is) of the Mannerist school; Velasquez or Van Dyck would relate to much of her work. Finding her own voice only after a near-fatal accident and an agonising recovery, Kahlo used self-portraiture to explore the twisted wreck of her emotions and her body, and bottomless depths of her sexuality. The work that emerged is indeed self-obsessed ("I am the subject I know best"), but it stands as one of the most individualistic oeuvres of the 20th century. But beyond museum walking tour interpretations of this great artist emerges a more immediate problem; Frida now joins Georgia O'Keefe as an artistic poster girl, a cult heroine in pop culture and feminism. She inhabits museum walls as well as t-shirts and mouse pads, and her self-portraiture now graces the USA mail.

Kahlo, outside artistic circles, was little more than footnote until art historian Hayden Herrera published Frida: a biography of Frida Kahlo in 1983. This reads as truth greater than fiction and implores for cinema: a young woman of German-Jewish and Mexican-Catholic parentage who recovered from polio only to be involved in a grisly bus accident, suffering injuries that would leave her in pain for the rest of her life; a wife who had a difficult but symbiotic relationship with the elephantine, womanising muralist Diego Rivera; a woman who smoke, drank, swore and screwed like a sailor, who was a passionate if naïve Communist, and who counted actresses and statesmen as her lovers. Of course Madonna would want to play her!

Luckily, her project never gathered steam, and Selma Hayek is marvellous in the difficult role. She is Producer of the effort, and was on the project for five years before shooting began. Clearly a labour of study, devotion and love, her performance is touching without being pathetic, and utterly honest. She is perfectly suited to the young, wild Frida and performs with clarity and abandon; a tequila-soaked tango with Ashley Judd's Tina Modotti (now she's a footnote persona well worth a biography) just about smoulders on the screen. As Frida ages and suffers further agonies (miscarriages, further operations, the amputation of her toes and later her right leg) Hayek's acting becomes a touch mannered, as if to compensate for her obvious youth. But the characterisation is huge, witness the ease of transformation into the bejewelled, native-costumed Mexican diva. And watch out for the Oscars.

Kahlo is said to have remarked "I have suffered two big accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar ran over me. The other was Diego." (This is paraphrased to fine effect in the film.) Diego Rivera, superbly realised by Alfred Molina, became Frida's other half both personally and artistically. This was, by all accounts, (least of all Frida's much orchestrated and embellished ones) one hurricane of a relationship, a convoluted mess of sexual obsession, artistic respect and revolutionary fervour. At the time of their marriage in 1929, he was twice her age and at least twice her size, "like an elephant marrying a dove", as Frida's disapproving mother put it.

Although Hayek's and Molinas's work together is excellent, and is the core of the film, so much of their dialogue is guilt, recrimination and forgiveness that a soap-opera sameness, not to mention sentiment, creeps in. The couple's musical sex partners becomes almost a parody; of course Rivera would sleep with Frida's sister, she was posing for him. Clearly Taymor had to trim much for purposes of time, an unfortunate loss is that Frida's two-year affair with Leon Trotsky (well played by an oddly accented Geoffrey Rush) is translated into a passionate one-night stand.

One is left to wonder where this film would have gone if the lead actress was not doubling as Producer, for by the time the credits roll what emerges is essentially a conservative, realistic and credible biography, telling a long, complex story with clarity. This does get the message across, but it is not Frida Kahlo. What is upsetting about the film is that the spirit of Kahlo emerges again and again, and is then carefully put away.

Director Juliet Taymor began as a puppet artist and rose to fame with her production of The lion king on Broadway. Her next effort, her first full length, was the astonishing Titus, an adaptation of Shakespeare's pot-boiler Titus Andronicus. Probably the most ambitious Shakespeare film to date, making recent efforts by the likes of Branagh and Luhrmann look like Saturday morning television, this blend of performance art, heroic theatre and surrealist cinema jumps off the screen. Frida Kahlo deserves the same, and the viewer feels as if Taymor is trying, but not allowed, to serve her subject.

There are many moments when Taymor brings daring Titus-like filmmaking to Frida. Use of her actual paintings, much of it portraiture, is zoomed-in on to ideal effect, in particular following her miscarriage. In the opening scene, the camera pans a magical Mexican garden, dazzlingly coloured, replete with cacti, monkeys and peacocks. From nowhere, a narrow wooden bed floats in, borne like a coffin out into the street. On it lays the elder Frida, peaceful, very much alive, in full make-up, costume and regalia. This is Gabriel García Márquez set to music by Wagner, and it works. But we leave this realm quickly; reality takes hold.

Taymor manages similar magic with the streetcar accident that defined Frida's life, but the hallucinated, surrealist dance that follows, loaded with Dali and Bruñel, seems a shock after twenty minutes of very realistic cinema. And Taymor's most wondrous moment, a Dadaist collage of Diego as King Kong, taking New York by storm, with Frida-painted paper cut-outs of the couple dancing through, is almost too remarkable forthe tea-totalling naturalism that it interrupts. Kahlo the creative artist deserves more.

Now and then, Frida does unshackle itself, breaking free, in outpourings of colour, challenging filmmaking, music, imagery and sheer operatic spectacle, it brings to life an enigmatic and remarkable artist.

Security censorship classification

MA 15+ (Adult themes, medium level sex scenes)

Surveillance time

127 minutes (2:07 hours)

Not for public release in Australia before date

Film: 26 December 2002
DVD rental: 23 July 2003
VHS rental: 23 July 2003
DVD retail: 2 August 2006

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