[Screen It]


(2002) (Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina) (R)

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Drama: A look at the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, her work and her tumultuous marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera.
It's 1922 and Frida Kahlo (SALMA HAYEK) is a student in Mexico City who enjoys hanging out with her boyfriend, Alejandro Gomez Arias (DIEGO LUNA), and spying on legendary local artist Diego Rivera (ALFRED MOLINA) fooling around with his nude model.

Yet, a bad bus accident soon leaves Frida horribly injured and her parents, Guillermo (ROGER REES) and Matilde (PATRICIA REYES SPINDOLA), and sister, Cristina (MIA MAESTRO), fear she may never walk again. Things get worse when Alejandro announces he's off to study and then live abroad, leaving Frida all alone and bed-ridden.

To console her, Guillermo brings her an easel and canvas she can use in bed and Frida then teaches herself how to paint, although her initial subject is herself in various self-portraits. Once partially healed and able to walk again, she approaches Diego and asks if he'll look at her paintings.

He's impressed and soon introduces her to a variety of other artists including photographer Tina Modotti (ASHLEY JUDD) and painter David Alfaro Siqueiros (ANTONIO BANDERAS). She also meets Diego's ex-wife, Lupe Marin (VALERIA GOLINO), who still isn't over him and is obviously jealous of Frida.

Nevertheless, she and Diego are soon married, she joins him in the communist party, and their tumultuous professional and private lives begin. Despite his affairs, their various fights and a well-publicized run-in with Nelson Rockefeller (EDWARD NORTON) over a controversial mural in Rockefeller Center, the two remain together. They eventually host exiled Russian leader Leon Trotsky (GEOFFREY RUSH) and his wife, Natalia (MARGARITA SANZ).

With time passing and the strain on their relationship growing, the two then try to figure out what they want and whether that includes each other.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
There are various inherent problems involved with making a biographical drama about a real life artist such as a writer or painter. The first, obviously, is in trying to cram the person's entire life - or at least big chunks of it - into two and maybe up to three hours of screen time without things feeling fractured or episodic.

Another is in finding someone who looks the part (especially if the subject is well-known) and has the dramatic chops and talent to pull it off. Then there's the fact that watching a writer write or painter paint isn't necessarily visually entrancing, and portraying the inner stimulus and motivation is often difficult to do.

Finally, some directors of such projects are paralyzed with fear about imparting their own artistic voice and visual look on the story and art, while others are occasionally a bit overzealous in trying to mimic or portray that of their subject.

The latest such film, "Frida," has some of those problems, but thankfully avoids falling victim to them and manages to come off as a mostly well-made and satisfying experience. For those unfamiliar with Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), she was an influential Mexican artist who endured the effects of childhood polio, a horrific bus accident and being married to the notoriously unfaithful Diego Rivera. She went on to produce some of today's most sought after 20th century artwork.

Like most such biopics, this one can't avoid the episodic curse, particularly late in the story when screenwriters Clancy Sigal ("In Love and War"), Diane Lake (making her debut), and Gregory Nava ("Selena," "My Family") & Anna Thomas ("My Family," "A Time of Destiny") - working from the Hayden Herrera biographical book - rapidly cram many events into the picture. Despite the constant temporal jumps, however, the first two-thirds of the film don't feel horribly segmented and some of the individual scenes are terrific.

Those came courtesy of director Julie Taymor who seemed a good choice to helm the effort. After all, she directed the little seen but visually stimulating "Titus" after bringing "The Lion King" to the Broadway stage in a highly imaginative fashion.

While the motivational and watching-the-artist-at-work bits aren't as informative or entertaining as in "Pollock," Taymor does a decent job visually telling the story. Where viewers and critics alike may disagree, however, is in her occasional surrealistic moments including an animated, Tim Burton-esque hospital surgery scene (replete with moving skeletons) and a floating image montage representing a trip to New York.

I would have preferred that she had either not including any of them or, conversely, had used many more. As they stand, they might capture the artist's surreal work and related mindset, but they clash so much with the rest of the normally shot/presented film that they come off as curious distractions.

Fortunately, the same can't be said about Salma Hayek ("Timecode," "Wild Wild West") in the lead role. Reportedly clamoring to make and star in the film for years, Hayek not only is perfectly cast for the part from a personality and physical perspective (even letting her normally well-plucked eyebrows grow together in Frida's signature mono-brow), but she also delivers a terrific take on the woman, equally and superbly hitting both the high and low notes. If I were a betting man, I'd put money on her receiving various accolades and acting nominations.

The same holds true for Alfred Molina ("Texas Rangers," "Chocolat") playing the real life painter and womanizer Diego Rivera. Making such an adulterous character engaging and even somewhat sympathetic is no easy task, but Molina pulls it off with seemingly little strain. The scenes and chemistry between him and Hayek - while not always easy to watch - are terrific. You never get the feeling that you're watching Hollywood performers playing the parts. Instead, they more than convincingly become the characters, and that's a great testament for this sort of work.

Supporting performances from the likes of Geoffrey Rush ("The Banger Sisters," "Lantana"), Valeria Golino ("Rain Man," the "Hot Shots" movies") and Roger Rees ("The Emperor's Club," "The Scorpion King") are all solid.

Yet, some from notable performers such as Ashley Judd ("The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," "High Crimes"), Antonio Banderas ("Ballistic: Ecks vs. Severs," the "Spy Kids" films) and Hayek's significant other, Edward Norton ("Red Dragon," "Death to Smoochy"), are a bit more distracting. That's because they don't have enough time or material to allow their characters to conceal the performer's identities. In addition, Norton's Rockefeller mural controversy with Rivera was covered better in "Cradle Will Rock."

Although the film has some problems, the performances by the leads along with a terrific score and soundtrack of Mexican music and songs more than make up for any such deficiencies and impediments. Not perfect, but certainly intriguing and engaging, "Frida" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed October 7, 2002 / Posted November 1, 2002

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