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FRIDA

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush, Valeria Golina, Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas, Edward Norton
Director:  Julie Taymor
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Miramax
Features:  See Review
Length:  123 Minutes
Release Date:  June 10, 2003

“Frida…I’m asking you to marry me.”

“I don’t need rescuing, Diego.”

“I do.”

Film ***1/2

Frida is a movie that’s the result of a remarkable blend of two unique female artists’ talents.  One is the director, Julie Taymor.  The other is, of course, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (Hayek).  Both have a singular boldness to their visions and a fearlessness in expression that bring strange and beautiful images alive before our eyes.  This project was a marriage made in heaven.

Before watching this film, I knew very little about Frida Kahlo, but the best biopics are films that engross you without any prior knowledge.  And Frida was such a vibrant, loving, creative, tragic creature that I was emotionally invested for the duration.

Born and raised in Mexico City, Frida was a funny, spirited young girl whose world was forever changed by a horrific trolley accident.  It nearly killed her, but she survived; it nearly paralyzed her, but she walked again.  It left her in terrific pain for the rest of her days, and complications from it did eventually claim her life, but this movie is not one that mourns her death so much as celebrate her life.

While convalescing, she took to art as a means of coping with her fears and pains.  Her talent amazed everyone around her, so she sought advice from Mexico’s most acclaimed artist, Diego Rivera (Molina), an older, rounder, womanizing, gleefully pompous figure who also happened to be a loudly outspoken Communist.  He saw much in Frida both as an artist and as a woman.  Promising to be loyal but admitting up front he could never be faithful, the two became lovers, and eventually husband and wife.

Frida found it easy to stand by her man in his artistic triumphs and failures as he toured America to great acclaim for his talents and criticism for his open Communist beliefs…in fact, he was even commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller (Norton) to paint a mural on the great wall of the Rockefeller Center, only to have it torn down when Diego refused to remove a portrait of Lenin he included in the piece.  But despite his warnings and her attempts to believe that fidelity wasn’t as important as love, his continual affairs took an emotional tear on her…much of her hurt and frustration ended up beautifully expressed in her paintings.

But Frida enjoyed her extramarital freedoms as well, sharing the bedroom companies of such celebrities as Josephine Baker and exiled Communist statesman Leon Trotsky (Rush).  And while both Frida and Diego purported to be above petty jealousies in their marriage, the truth is, it almost destroyed them.

Yet it didn’t.  Though Frida’s life was over much too quickly at age 46, she and Diego found it in themselves to renew their commitment to one another which lasted until her untimely passing.  And though Diego received the lion’s share of artistic acclaim in their lifetimes, Frida’s unique, heartfelt and passionate visions would later eclipse his in the world of modern art.  Many Mexican women count Frida amongst their heroines.

Salma Hayek admittedly was one.  This film was really born from her love and passion for the life of Frida Kahlo, and as one of the producers, she lingered and worried over every detail like a mother.  Her work ended up not only as a celebration of Frida, but a triumph for herself as well, not the least of which was her wonderfully realized and Oscar nominated performance in the title role.  As an actress, Ms. Hayek has never been more viable or vibrant.

Her supporting cast deserves mention, too, as this movie was possibly last year’s most impressive ensemble piece.  The always wonderful character actor Alfred Molina brought Diego to life without reservation or judgment, leaving the impression of an embraceably flawed human on the screen to counteract Frida’s passions.  Other terrific actors in small roles include the aforementioned Edward Norton and Geoffrey Rush, along with the likes of Ashley Judd and Antonio Banderas.

But again, Ms. Kahlo’s isn’t the only artistic vision to celebrate with this film.  Julie Taymor, who brought The Lion King to life on Broadway and made one of the most audacious feature film debuts ever with Titus continues to prove herself as a unique and uncompromising visionary with endless creativity and courage.  She’s unafraid, even in a biographical film, to use unconventional means in order to express Frida’s feelings.  Some of these include seeing her paintings come to life, a lively postcard montage of New York, and the haunting visions of Frida in the hospital after her accident.  In two major features, Ms. Taymor has already proven herself an artist of distinguishable style capable of putting her own creative stamp on a project that didn’t initially originate with her.

But for all this talk of creativity and artist merit, I don’t want to overlook one major point, and that is Frida is simply splendid entertainment from start to finish.  It has a wonderful story to tell peopled with wonderful characters against a wonderful backdrop of a city.  This is the kind of movie where you don’t just learn about the subject, but feel you’ve experienced every joy and heartache along with them.  Frida Kahlo was a remarkable woman, and this movie celebrates her with passion.

Video ***1/2

From the opening shot of Frida’s courtyard, I knew this disc was going to be something special.  This anamorphic offering from Miramax captures and expresses all the imagery from Frida’s life with rich, glowing detail and consistently vibrant coloring.  Certain scenes take on a sense of heightened realism, either because of the size of the palate or the narrowness of it (a hospital scene is made even more frightening by its monochromatic hues).  Occasionally, there’s almost too much going on, and a scene or two come across just a tad over saturated, but that’s a minor complaint.  This DVD captures the integrity of Julie Taymor’s vision with gorgeous results.

Audio ***

The 5.1 audio is a bit limited owing to the largely dialogue-oriented nature of the piece, but Elliot Goldenthal’s beautiful, Oscar winning score is a superb plus.  Spanish guitars trill through the speakers over lush orchestral arrangements that will leave music lovers smiling.  All spoken words are clean and clear, and the .1 channel is used sparingly but effectively when needed.

Features ****

This is a fully loaded double disc edition.  Disc One includes a conversation with Salma Hayek, who talks about what the project meant to her, the difficulties in bringing it to life, her performance, how the film grew to something bigger than she had ever envisioned, and of course, her pleasure with its success.  There are also two commentary tracks:  Julie Taymor discusses the filmmaking process in detail, including working with the actors, the locations, her director of photography Rodrigo Prieto and more, while Elliot Goldenthal offers selected scene musical comments.  There are also some sneak peeks at other coming Disney titles.

Disc Two contains everything else, including two interviews with Julie Taymor, one by Bill Moyers and one Q&A session at the American Film Institute.  Several production featurettes showcase a musical interview with Chavela Vargas and a look at singer Lila Downs who provides vocals for the film, two visual effects pieces, “The Vision, Design & Music of Frida” featurette, a look at the locations of Frida’s life and a portrait of her as an artist, some printed facts about her, and even a look at Salma Hayek recording her song for the soundtrack CD.  All in all, a full and enjoyable package.

Summary:

Frida is an entertaining, artistically spirited view of one woman’s extraordinary life and career.  With a solid cast spearheaded by Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina and surefooted, creative direction from Julie Taymor, this is a biopic to celebrate.