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Entertainment News

Painting a passionate life in bold, tumultuous colors

SHAWN LEVY

Moviemakers generally enter into biographies of great artists with the best intentions. But the resulting films have too often embarrassed the memories of their subjects and the reputations of those who would celebrate them.

Perhaps the stumbling block is the inescapable hero worship, or the desire to sprinkle famous names and faces throughout, or the thorny problem of depicting artistic inspiration and effort in a fashion that conveys a sense of the wonder of creation. In truth, most film biographies of artists, writers and musicians fail to live up to their promise.

"Frida," a film about the life and art of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, avoids almost all of the pitfalls of the genre and piles up several notable plusses -- gorgeous color, passionate acting, lovely music -- in addition to evading the usual minuses. It's a project that was batted around Hollywood for years and finally brought to screen after nearly a decade of being championed by its star, Salma Hayek. If the story of an avant-garde painter and political and sexual revolutionary seems a stretch for the actress, she acquits herself with what is easily her finest performance to date, as well as in her collaboration with the brilliant theater director Julie Taymor, who finds magic in a sometimes weedy genre.

The script skims chronologically through Kahlo's life: her brazenly liberated youth; her crippling in a streetcar accident; her sickbed application to painting; her courting the muralist and lothario Diego Rivera, first as a mentor, then as lover; the firecracker marriage that resulted; life-changing trips to New York and Paris; devotion to communist revolutionary causes that culminated in an offer to house the fugitive Leon Trotsky; Kahlo's subsequent affair with Trotsky; and her untimely death, at age 47.

If the straightforward narrative verges on the pedestrian, nothing in the presentation or the performances does. Taymor captures the luscious colors of Kahlo's world -- on canvas, in her environment, in her volatile emotions -- and imparts a feeling of dancing and dreaming to almost every scene. Particularly striking are the surreal streetcar wreck and the many scenes in which reality bleeds into some famous canvas of Kahlo's, or vice versa, creating a seamless connection between the life and art.

As Kahlo, Hayek evinces her familiar spitfire energy but channels it fetchingly into politics and painting as well as the predictable (and not so predictable) amours. Brilliantly cast opposite her as Rivera, Alfred Molina delivers yet another in a career full of nuanced, note-perfect performances, capturing the contradictions and appetites of that titanic figure with humor and sometimes appalling frankness. Geoffrey Rush makes a nicely threadbare Trotsky, while the likes of Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas and Edward Norton perk up the picture with cameos. Roger Rees imbues the part of Kahlo's father with a charmingly weary air.

While the script of "Frida" struggles at times to be something more than an ordinary and-then-this-happened biography, there's a buoyancy to the direction and acting that make the film special. Like Ed Harris' "Pollock," it's an instance of filmmakers being so inspired by the life and achievement of an artist (or, in this case, a pair of artists) that they transcend genre to create something invigorating.         

 

 

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