- The Washington Times - Friday, November 1, 2002

Ed Harris' "Pollock" was the most astute and absorbing of the recent movies that have attempted to depict artistic headliners of the 20th century. Even its narrow focus seemed appropriate for Jackson Pollock. Julie Taymor prefers a more panoramic and potentially diffuse approach to the principal subjects of "Frida," a biographical tribute to Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, a sometimes estranged but enduring conjugal match from the late 1920s through the early 1950s.

Ultimately superficial but always colorful and flamboyantly diverting, "Frida" commands more respect than "Surviving Picasso" or "I Shot Andy Warhol." It retains a substantial knowing edge on those specimens even when the domestic scene begins to resemble a kind of bohemian "Honeymooners," with Alfred Molina's portly Rivera as the resident Ralph Kramden and Salma Hayek's Frida as his dishy, exasperated Alice. Come to think of it, a sitcom about famous but wrangling painters is probably long overdue.

The time frame of "Frida" also encourages Miss Taymor and cinematographer Roberto Prieto to engineer a welcome departure from the recent fad for diminished and chilling, ice-blue color schemes. In their enthusiasm, they regress to vibrant, richly saturated colors.

Despite the serious thematic pretensions, which extend to mentions of Communist Party loyalties and a guest appearance by Geoffrey Rush as Leon Trotsky, it's almost as if the MGM musical apparatus were hosting another vintage holiday in Mexico with Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban.

The movie owes its existence to Miss Hayek's persistence in realizing a Frida impersonation. Similar projects with Madonna and Jennifer Lopez fell by the wayside while Miss Hayek kept the faith, eventually abetted by Miss Taymor and actor Edward Norton, who agreed to serve as a script doctor after he and Miss Hayek became consorts. He appears briefly as Nelson Rockefeller, during a far more plausible and effective distillation of the episode botched in Tim Robbins' "The Cradle Will Rock" a dispute between patron Rockefeller and artist Rivera about a mural commissioned for Rockefeller Center in the early 1930s.

I have never been drawn to Miss Kahlo's paintings, typically miniature self-portraits and sometimes excruciating surreal reminders of the physical suffering she endured in the aftermath of a hideous traffic accident in Mexico City in 1925, when she was 18. The lasting consequences included repeated operations to repair fractures and spinal damage. Miscarriages thwarted her occasional maternal longings. Eventually, she lost a leg to gangrene, and the accumulated infirmities contributed to an early demise at the age of 47 in 1953.

The fact that Frida Kahlo functioned productively at all tends to overwhelm aversion to the obsessive nature of her painting. She also seems to have gotten into the spirit of Mr. Rivera's philandering, acquiring a reputation for sexual promiscuity in her own right. A number of celebrated consorts are reduced to the single case of Trotsky, who took up residence in the former home of Frida's parents during his Mexican exile. In fact, his assassination by an agent of Josef Stalin's exposed both Miss Kahlo and Mr. Rivera to fleeting suspicion of homicidal conspiracy by the Mexican government.

There's a cloudy, suspicious, wounded face in the Kahlo self-portraits that Miss Hayek can never persuasively simulate. The disparity also is noticeable at any early point when Miss Taymor duplicates a family photo in which it amused Frida to disguise herself as a man.

The disguise is easier to buy in the photo, in part because the real Frida presents a saturnine expression to the camera. Salma Hayek still seems all girl, ripely and cutely, when dressing in drag. I think she's too sunny and robust to authenticate the Frida who seemed to be preoccupied with hurt and even dread when transposing her impulses to canvas. It seems a pity that there isn't a young Mexican actress with a temperament closer to that of the Australian actress Judy Davis, better equipped for black moods and high-strung emotions.

The most exemplary performance in the movie is contributed by Roger Rees as Frida's taciturn German father, who seems to have an exquisite capacity for suffering in silence and masking paternal devotion. All gifted underplayers should rejoice if he ends up as one of the finalists for best supporting actor.


TITLE: "Frida"

RATING: R (Frequent profanity and sexual candor; interludes of simulated intercourse; fleeting nudity; graphic violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Julie Taymor. Based on a biography by Hayden Herrera.

RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes


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