Frida  (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

I can't remember rooting so hard for a movie to be good. About five years ago I wrote that someone should make a movie about Frida Kahlo. I have always felt Salma Hayek was underappreciated. Salma had a passion to make this film. The auspices seemed favorable.

Kahlo lived a fascinating, singular life. Despite an accident which should have killed her (she was impaled on a steel rod), and numerous subsequent physical problems relating both to the accident and a long bout with cancer, she was one of the most influential artists and activists of the period between the two wars. She and her eventual husband, Diego Rivera, led a new wave of Mexican artists who championed "Mexicanidad" with a brightly colorful style evocative of Mexico's native art, clothing, and cultural traditions, celebrating their pre-Columbian culture, in proud indigenous opposition to the rapid Americanization which was then taking place in their land.

Despite privileged lives, they also championed worker's rights in those revolutionary times, even playing host to Leon Trotsky himself, after he was evicted from Norway. Rivera was a die-hard socialist. Frida was too, but she was one of those people who deliberately lived a life of noble poverty and identified with the descamisados, the "shirtless ones" whose number swelled the population of Latin America. In reality, she was no barefooted pueblerina. Her father was a European Jew named Wilhelm, a successful photographer who raised Frida in a household filled with servants, and sent her to private schools. But whether privileged or not, Diego and Frida were genuinely dedicated to socialist ideals during time when socialism really symbolized compassion for the working man.

Although Frida lived her life in great pain, she was always known for a cheerfulness, approachability, and humor in her life and art. She and Rivera were both known for voracious sexual appetites, and in Frida's case that appetite was omnivorous, encompassing people of all sexes, races, and degrees of fame. She counted among her famous lovers, for example, both Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary, and Josephine Baker, the black singer/dancer who was the toast of Paris.

Perhaps most important as a qualification for a movie subject, Frida lived her life squarely on the cultural line leading from Oscar Wilde to Madonna, meaning she was one of the people who had some talent for the arts, but whose greatest talent was the art of self-promotion. She loved to be outrageous and flamboyant in public. She drank, and speechified, and made love, and painted as much as her tortured body would allow. She was talented at painting, but she was an unequalled genius at mythification. Of her 200 or so paintings, more than half were self-portraits, pretty much all of them showing her in brightly colored clothing with a touch of surrealism to keep them above the sentimentality of most folk art. After all, Frida was painting the most important woman in Mexico, and she made sure that everyone in the country and the world was familiar with her face and her support of Mexicana. She promoted herself as brilliantly as Madonna did a half-century later, except that Madonna used herself as the canvas.

Kahlo's work is held in high esteem today, and the "Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird", which hangs here in Austin, is insured for five million simoleans. There is also a popular "cult of Frida" among feminists, who view her as an important pioneer, with importance that is symbolic as well as personal.

So you'd think there should be a good movie there, right?

Wrong. There are about five good movies there.

The problem with a life like Frida's is that if a biopic tries to hit every highlight, it becomes a glitzy, star-studded version of "Biography", imparting the facts, but exuding no sense of what made the person tick, finding nothing of the person's soul, and giving the audience no incentive to watch other than simply to learn the facts.


That's exactly what happened here. Frida meets Trotsky, they climb a pyramid, they make love, Trotsky leaves. The Trotsky part was a small one which wasted Geoffrey Rush, but least Trotsky got some lines. He fared better than Josephine Baker. Frida writes a letter to Diego while Baker is singing. Frida and Baker exchange glances. Frida and Baker are in bed doin' the nasty.

Edward Norton and Antonio Banderas make equally unimportant cameo appearances.


1. Diego makes love to his nude model - Lucia Bravo

2. Salma Hayek's breasts are seen several times, and more than that is seen in a nude love scene with actress Karine Plantadit-Bageot.

3. We also see the buns of Mia Maestro on top of Diego in a love scene.

The film has some strengths.

  • The performers are solid. Salma Hayek is suitably sexy and intelligent, feisty and cheerful enough to encompass all of Frida's personality traits, and she shrugs off the physical travails, which keeps the film from crossing into sentimentality and martyrdom. Given Salma's actual age, she did an especially good job at playing Frida as a teenager.
  • Julie Taymor is one of the best directors in the world when it comes to the visual presentation of a movie. I enjoyed the way she made her sets look like Frida's paintings, then transitioned her scenes by having paintings come to life, or by having Frida's life morph into paintings. The movie looks GREAT!
  • The point of the film, if it has one, is that one may use hard work, art, and imagination as an antidote to pain. Frida's painting allows her to soar with the eagles, far above her hobbled body.
  • If you like female nudity, there's plenty and it is sexy.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Disc 1: Feature film with commentary by director Julie Taymor

  • Selected scenes commentary with composer Elliot Goldenthal

  • A conversation with Salma Hayek

  • Disc 2: American Film Institute Q&A with director Julie Taymor

  • Bill Moyers interview with Julie Taymor

  • Chavela Vargas interview

  • The voice of Lila Downs

  • The vision of Frida: with Rodrigo Prieto and Julie Taymor

  • The design of Frida: with Felipe Fernandez

  • The music of Frida: with Elliot Goldenthal and Salma Hayek

  • Salma Hayek's recording session

  • Bringing Frida Kahlo's life and art to film: a walk through real locations

  • Portrait of an artist

  • "Amobea Proteus" visual FX

  • "The Brothers Quay" visual FX

  • Frida Kahlo facts

  • Widescreen anamorphic format, 1.85

And it has some other weaknesses besides the shallow treatment of each major episode in her life.

  • The cast and director didn't agree on their conventions, something which is important to do in a film like this. The film is entirely in English. How shall we distinguish between Spanish speakers speaking Spanish to one another and Spanish speakers speaking some other language with Trotsky or Rockefeller? I'm not sure what their original plan was, but this entire project would have been so much more comfortable if the conversations in Spanish had actually been in Spanish.
  • Some incidental scenes go on far too long. There are several scenes of people singing in Spanish in which the song is not background, but the focus of the scene, involving facial close-ups of the singer at an excruciating length of running time. If you show me a weathered old Mexican woman singing for a couple of seconds, you gain all the emotional impact you need. I see the pain of her forebears in her wrinkled countenance, and all that cinematic mumbo-jumbo. When you focus on her face for a minute or more ... frankly, my mind starts to wander. I could make the same point about the prolonged lesbian love scene with Baker and Kahlo, although in that case my mind did not wander.

Bottom line: one sentence. They assembled a lot of talent to make this movie, and they did a lot of things right, but they didn't have the right script to begin with.


Great DVD, by the way. Good transfer and rich with features.

Tuna's thoughts in yellow

Frida (2002) is one of the hardest films for me to review, as I am of two minds about it.

On the one hand ...

It is the Cliff Notes of biopics about Frida Kahlo, showing us the key events of her adult life at a dizzying pace and with lack of detail. Her affair with Josephine Baker is basically a photo montage, her dalliance with Leon Trotsky is little more, and there is no mention of her affairs with Dolores del Rio, Paulette Goddard, Georgia O'Keefe, Emmy Lou Packard, Nickolas Muray, Isamu Noguchi, Maria Felix or any of the numerous others. We see nothing of her life before the day she met future husband Diego Rivera for the first time at 18, a period which includes her bout with Polio that left her with a withered leg at an early age, and hence miss the chance to see how she became what she was. While they did hit the high points of her life from 18 to her death, we feel no closer to understanding the person at the end than at the beginning, and this complex women is one I would like to understand.

The film is not without positives. It is colorful, with interesting camera angles and lighting, but not so much so that it distracts from the performances, which were very good. Makeup was also exceptional, and I was not alone in enjoying the sound track, So it had a lot of right ingredients, but did not have a good biopic script, and no amount of talent or dedication could have made up for that.

On the other hand ...

When director Julie Taymor was first given the script, it was very much a biopic, and she was immediately taken with the subject. She quickly realized, however, that this was way too much life for one film, and a low budget film at that. After several read-throughs, it was the love affair between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera that stood out in her mind as the most singular aspect of the story. Despite infidelity and jealousy on both their sides, a mutual penchant for self promotion, and competition for the attention of the art world, they stayed together, and their divorce lasted only a year. This was clearly not your typical love story, and so is the story she decided to tell. What remained was finding an approach to the project, and that was an easier problem. She noticed that Kahlo's body of work was largely self portraits, and she could see her life events reflected in them, and so created a visual approach to the story tying in her life with her art, even to the extent of morphing people into paintings and paintings into people.

When viewed in this light, what is criticized as a weak biopic is really a visual autobiography of Frida's relationship with Diego Rivera, and what was achieved was nothing short of brilliant, especially given the budget constraints. There is no way they could have told even this limited story without Paris and New York, as events in those cities were pivotal in the relationship, but they had to shoot the entire film in Mexico. Composites were made using After-Effects, which fit in well with the visual style of the film. Much of the animation was painstakingly done using stop motion animation as a cost cutting measure. The entire cast worked for scale.

Ad so ...

I agree completely that this is not a good biopic of Frida Kahlo. Then again a taco is a terrible bowling ball. Perhaps a title that would have created more accurate expectations would have lessened the criticism, but as it is, the film was award winning and a moderate box office success. Someone will eventually make a good biopic or two about this fascinating woman that will be what everyone was expecting, but that doesn't lessen this achievement.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 2/4, 3.5/5. Most critics with a scoring system gave it about three stars. I think James Berardinelli was probably the toughest on it.

  • Nominated for six Oscars, it won two minor ones. The film was nominated for dozens of lesser awards, including costumes, music, and acting.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 7.5/10, Yahoo voters 4.3/5.
  • Made for $12 million dollars, it grossed a very satisfactory $25 million. That was quite impressive considering that it did not go into wide distribution, never reaching 800 screens.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "C+. Right idea. Good cast, especially Molina. Good directorial choice in many ways. Simply the wrong script." Tuna says, "Using a star system, I have to agree with Ebert's 3 1/2 stars, but this art film visual love story will not have wide cross-over appeal, and is therefore a C+."

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