By now, Kahlo is something of a feminist cultural icon, but director Julie Taymor and star/producer Salma Hayek don't play it safe or stolid. They're not in the religious or political relic business. Their movie is prodigiously detailed and reverent toward Frida and her legend - and surprisingly sympathetic to her promiscuous, faithless husband Diego - but it's also playful and imaginative. Audiences who approach "Frida" in a reverential mood are likely to be a little shocked by the torrent of imagery and emotion Taymor throws onto the screen as she carries us through Frida's life.
Taymor and her writers and visual artists present Kahlo's life in flashback. As the older, bedridden Frida is being carried by truck to a career exhibition, her life whirls by in vivid tableaus - the constant pain from her bus accident (at age 18), her explosive meeting with the admired and notorious Diego, their tempestuous open marriage and their lifelong artistic journeys. The movie shows the odyssey of both painters across the political-artistic landscape of the '30s and '40s. The supporting cast, none as vividly drawn as the central pair, range from Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) and unlikely patron of the arts Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton) to photographer Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd), muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros (Antonio Banderas) and Diego's ex-wife Lupe Marin (Valeria Golino).
Instead of indicting Rivera as a chauvinist, Taymor paints his alliance with Kahlo as an improbable but burningly intense love story - so much so that Molina's robust, empathetic performance as Diego actually steals the film. The movie doesn't sidestep the couple's Marxist politics. (Diego tries unsuccessfully to paint Lenin into a mural he's doing for Rockefeller.) "Frida" tries to drench us in passions. When Taymor turns the paintings such as "The Dream" into huge three-dimensional dioramas and has the actors, notably Hayek, enter and inhabit them, she's impishly crystallizing the whole notion that artists live in and create their own worlds - as well as inviting us into her concept of Frida's spirit, which can't wait to burst loose from the moorings of life and soar off into wild flights of fancy.
The wilder, the better, as far as I'm concerned. Taymor is a theatrical virtuoso in the Orson Welles-Peter Brook tradition, the kind of artist you like to see indulging herself, shooting the works. After the mesmerizing tricks of her first film, the baroque "Titus," we expected to see her go too far. In "Frida," it's exciting simply to watch her, scene after scene, create bravura set pieces, even if Kahlo's life is fascinating enough not to need so much theatrical-cinematic embroidery.
The style doesn't overwhelm the subject, even if its very Ken Russell-like density dooms "Frida" to a kind of disappointment. Though it's stuffed with visual riches, and some extraordinary performances - especially Hayek's and Molina's - Taymor's "Frida" doesn't really get everything it's trying for. The script has four listed writers and two unlisted ones, and you can tell that it's passed through many hands. Yet I'm not sure I don't treasure partial failures like "Frida" more than the comparatively constrained but more timid successes of others. Taymor is less interested in absolute fidelity than in recreating the spirit and excitement of the art and the artist's life - and she does.
The movie, thanks to its brilliant director and dedicated star/producer, is an intensely sympathetic portrait.
It's defiant about Kahlo's looks, her politics, her bisexual promiscuity - all those aspects that might alienate more conservative audiences. "Frida" has proven surprisingly controversial among critics, perhaps because its subject and director make it, in a way, a cultural event. But I can't agree with the much-repeated judgment that it's a by-the-numbers bio. Whatever its flaws, "Frida" is a movie that seizes you up, catches fire and dances.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Directed by Julie Taymor; written by Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas, based on the book by Hayden Herrera; photographed by Rodrigo Prieto; edited by Francoise Bonnot; production designed by Felipe Fernandez del Paso; music by Elliot Goldenthal; produced by Sarah Green, Salma Hayek, Jay Polstein, Lizz Speed, Nancy Hardin, Lindsay Flickinger, Roberto Sneider. A Miramax release; opens Friday, Nov. 1. Running time: 2:02. MPAA rating: R (sexuality/nudity and language).
Frida Kahlo - Salma Hayek
Diego Rivera - Alfred Molina
Leon Trotsky - Geoffrey Rush
Tina Modotti - Ashley Judd
David Alfaro Siqueiros - Antonio Banderas
Nelson Rockefeller - Edward Norton Lupe Marin - Valeria Golino
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.