A Film Review By Michael Haley
|Rating:R for language, strong sexuality and adult situations.
Starring: Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush, Valeria Galino, Ashley Judd, Edward Norton.
Directed By:Julie Taymor
In this cold, lonely month that releases cold, lonely movies (you know which ones I’m talking about) how invigorating it is to see a film that’s so lush, full of feeling, and contains the thrill of life in almost every frame. No I’m not talking about Kangaroo Jack but the biopic Frida, based off of the artist Frida Kahlo’s life and her art, shared with fellow friend and artist (and husband on paper anyway) Diego Rivera. Although the material itself is hollow on occasion, the sheer love and passion thrown into the work burst through the seams and makes for a spectacular film.
Salma Hayek stars as the title artist, who is on her way to her one and only one woman show showcasing her art. She’s deathly ill and has been ordered to stay in bed, so that’s exactly what she does—stays in bed, and has others take the bed to the art show. Anyway, we than flash back to her high school days, where she and her friends observe Diego Rivera painting a nude woman, and being kids, they can’t believe they’re seeing someone pose nude. Life is going swell, when an accident in a trolley leaves her in a cast for quite awhile and inflicts pain upon her that will never come to pass. She eventually comes to walk again and begins an affair with Diego that turns into a marriage, albeit not a conventional one. They’re both free to have sex with others as long as they are loyal to each other because they don’t believe in convention, but because they are human, feel their ideals betray their feelings when both do have affairs outside the marriage. Along the way events are depicted such as Nelson Rockefeller’s destruction of Diego’s portrayal of Lenin in the mural he had painted for him and Leon Trotsky’s final days in Mexico.
With the Oscars around the corner, I never once thought that I would be clamoring for Salma Hayek’s nomination, but she surprised me. I always thought that she was a competent actress, but after this role, I am convinced that she is a great one. She truly makes Frida come to life for us, allowing contradiction, passion, hurt, and joy to come through in her performance. From the scene early on where she meets Diego for the first time and onward, her performance is something to behold. I don’t wish to shortchange the rest of the cast, all of whom lay out excellent performances as well. Alfred Molina has never been better (and he’s always been good) as Diego, and Geoffrey Rush manages to do so much in his short amount of screen time. The make up that turned Rush into the Russian Leon Trotsky is stellar, and I didn’t recognize him until his name popped up in the credits. Even Ashley Judd’s short role was beautifully acted, and I’m starting to earn a small respect for Judd (who was one of the few redeeming factors of Divine Secrets of the Idiot Sisterhood). Ensemble pieces can be tricky as big actors have a tendency to overplay their roles competing for the spotlight, but in this case, each actor became an instrument in the orchestra’s beautiful melody.
The performances are so good that it helps disguise the fact that the film itself is a little shallow. We hit most of the important stages of Frida’s life and career, but none of which are dealt with too deeply. At best, the film is an overview of her life that would best serve as an introductory to further study rather than the full course. We get some half scenes that showcase her and Diego’s political ideologies that fueled their art, but are abbreviated. This is fine for someone who’s quite familiar with her life and work, but if the viewer is like me and knows very little of Diego and Frida beyond their roles in the Tim Robbins film Cradle Will Rock, some further explanation is needed to truly understand the characters.
Even so, the film still works amazingly well not only because of the performances but also the sheer energy and passion that went into its production. The sets are built with vibrant colors that help showcase her art, and at times we’re even given short interludes that express her inner suffering through artistic representation akin to the work she put out. This film is hard to write about in this respect because the film captures not only the rhythm but the melodies of life that many filmmakers try to capture but rarely succeed. It’s hard to say exactly, “Well, it’s this scene that makes the film so great…” or “This is what they did right” because life itself is hard to pin down, but we realize when we see it. One instinctively feels it, and it’s felt here in all the right ways.
Another thing that’s so refreshing about the film is that it showcases Frida while never making any judgments towards her, one way or the other. It’s apparent that the makers love her and her work, but they allow the viewer to make that distinction themselves. It can be hard (for some people anyway) when she smokes, drinks, and is very promiscuous to say the least, but these are aspects of existence that would be untruthful to exclude. I was amazed to see an English language film that actually looks at her and her sexuality as it really is, and unafraid to be erotic, enticing, or voluptuous (I’m looking at you Ron Howard, and certain fudging of the facts of John Nash’s “preferences”).
This film is wonderful, but the reason my grade isn’t as high as one might expect is because as I’ve mentioned earlier, the script is hollow at times, and doesn’t probe into her life or her art the way it could have. Even so, you won’t regret watching the film, which is a moving and sometimes exhilarating portrait of the artist, her husband, and those that she touched along the way (some more so than others).