Frida Kahlo’s exotica is presumably the surreal expression of pain from deep within; it’s an anguish derived not only from that day in 1925 when the bus she was traveling in collided with a tramcar, causing metal to rip into her vaginal region and one of her legs, it’s also a calculated anguish abetted by narcissism—the self-portraits are compulsive self-infatuation, thinly enigmatic, thickly imperial. As she lay in bed in body casts, recuperating, one of her few options was to paint her sufferance and if every succeeding operation to relieve the physical agony caused more pain than the accident itself, her paintings mirrored the escalating malignancy with an equally increasing self-exaltation, a masochistic vainglory likely contradicting her fashionable communist politics. (Her home in Coyoacán and husband Diego Rivera’s in San Ángel, next to the famed San Ángel Inn, give rise to suspicions about shrewd political calculations.) These are not the usual cool abstractions from discerners removed from her legendary woes, and certainly not from tourists who at present are being subjected to garish celebration of her life through music videos and souvenirs. But the interpretations are upfront in Julie Taymor’s Frida starring Salma Hayek. Bringing to the artist’s work an integral animation, establishing the connection of her pain to creations on canvas, Taymor’s delicate conveyance as juxtaposition pulls us into feeling the paintings, such as “The Two Fridas,” “Henry Ford Hospital,” “Frida and Diego,” “The Broken Column” and “The Dream.” Refreshing the old format of biographies like Lust for Life, which is watching and thus abiding by the requisite if inexplicable suffering to produce art, Taymor provides a portrayal of a painter whose life and work appear to be shaped by and self-venerated as indigenous martyrdom. If Mexicans reflexively make the sign of the cross when they walk past a church, Frida posits herself on the cross. After shedding a resemblance to Winona Ryder during the early Preparatoria scenes for a surprise butch drag appearance designed to upstage a family snapshot, Hayek is pure commitment as Frida; she’s neither solemnly reverent nor fawning, and she’s even audacious to the point of getting us to smile quite broadly—like when she swigs down the biggest portion of a bottle of booze to win the right to tango provocatively with enticing Tina Modotti, played by a nearly unrecognizable Ashley Judd. (Frida’s beguilement ensnared Josephine Baker and Leon Trotsky too.) As Diego, in gracious support, Alfred Molina packs some of the heftiness of the real Panzón, who weighed in at some 300 lbs. And, claro, there’s a joke about the size of his own breasts, said to be Buddha-like. Rivera’s Gringolandia scandal at Rockefeller Center is here, as is his three-word response to the question of what matters most for a good marriage; also included is his infamous womanizing (though excluded is his macho-deflating cancer of the penis). Other actors somewhat in disguise: Richard Rees quietly impressive as Frida’s father; Antonio Banderas, with his hair rising high above his forehead; and as a cross between Sir Michael Redgrave and a skinny David Ogden Stiers, Geoffrey Rush does Trotsky. Based on Hayden Herrera’s bio, the script by Clancy Segal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas was reportedly punched up by Edward Norton (who plays Nelson Rockefeller); cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto; Oscar-winning music by Elliot Goldenthal; Oscar-winning makeup by John E. Jackson and Beatrice De Alba. Hayek painted some of the Frida replications.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2003 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.