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Art Imitates Life 

In one of more poignant moments of Frida -- the bio-pic of Frida Kahlo -- the Mexican artist lies in a pool of blood in a Detroit hotel room, the victim of a miscarriage. Minutes later, we see Kahlo's Henry Ford Hospital, a portrait of Kahlo lying in a bed with little images floating above and below her, tied together with crimson-red strings. The images are retablos, inspired by the small votive pictures that were dedicated in Mexican churches.

The work is classic Kahlo, and scene is a telling example of how actress Salma Hayek and director Julie Taymor seek to connect Kahlo's tortured work to her art -- a rare treat in the artist bio-pic genre. Throughout the movie, Hayek -- who won out over several actresses seeking to immortalize Kahlo -- breathes life into the legend in a film that plays so heavily in its strengths that we forgive its weaknesses.

Not exactly a master thespian, Hayek has spent most of her career playing Latina sexpots (From Dusk Till Dawn, Wild Wild West). But in Kahlo, she gets to have it both ways; her Frida Kahlo is not only sexy but independent and wise, a true artist who brought self-perception to a new level. Kahlo, whose life was filled with physical and emotional pain, fused Mexican folk art with a surrealism born of that pain.

Hayek, one of the film's producers, saw this, and conspires with Taymor to portray Kahlo almost as honestly as one can imagine. That this portrayal transcends a weak script and episodic pace is a testament to the heart that Hayek brings to the table.

Kahlo's story is laid out rather simply: stricken by polio at 6 and nearly crippled in a bus accident at 18, Kahlo nevertheless struggled early on to establish her career as an artist. She does this by seeking out Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) initially teasing him and ultimately marrying him in what became more an alliance than a truly romantic partnership. Though she spent most of her life in Rivera's shadow, Kahlo continued to paint, and respect for her work deepened while her health spiraled downward.

Over the years, we see Kahlo and Rivera's devotion to their art and the communist cause, and their friendships with revolutionary artists like photographer Tina Modotti and painter David Alfaro Siqueiros (Ashley Judd and Antonio Banderas, respectively, in cameos). But mostly, the time is spent with Kahlo putting up with Rivera's countless infidelities, which she expected. "Is fidelity that important to me?" she asks rhetorically. "Loyalty is important to me. Can you be that?"

Rivera could barely even be that, even if he was one of her consistent champions. "I paint what I see the world as," he tells her. "You, you paint from here (the heart). It's wonderful."

And it's not just talk; Taymor goes to show Kahlo's inspiration, often through a visual technique that sometimes goes little beyond novelty. Still, the technique deftly blurs the lines between reality and surrealism, which goes to the heart of Kahlo's life. When she pops out of one of her paintings, we know that her pain flowed from herself to her art and back again. Rarely does a movie about an artist explain the context of a career with such clarity. Add in scenery that is filled with primary colors and endless Mexican folk songs, and you get a movie rich in texture.

Hayek is no Meryl Streep, but the Mexican-born actress tackles the role with gusto, and Taymor reciprocates with one close-up after another. Hayek's beauty deserves it; she is all curves and verve, but she also wants to give us a Kahlo who lived lustily and independently in spite of being in constant pain. If she is sometimes too wide-eyed for her own good, it's done in the service of artistic passion -- and that goes a long way in my book. Throughout the film, Hayek's Kahlo is flirting, taunting, cussing, drinking, screwing, painting, arguing, loving. In the face of so much pain, Hayek's Kahlo is filled with life, so it's no surprise that this life -- warts and all -- works its way onto the canvas.

Molina provides the perfect counterpart as Rivera, making it even more curious why the Tony-nominated actor who once lit up films like Prick Up Your Ears and Boogie Nights seems content to play schlubs on CBS sitcoms. His Rivera is a chubby, hapless contradiction of man, a communist who loves the high life, a devoted partner who can't resist a tryst even if it's his wife's sister. Kahlo gained her revenge with her affairs with women and men alike, including fellow communist Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), whom Rivera had invited to Mexico for refuge from Stalin. (Trotsky was eventually assassinated, and Kahlo was questioned by the police before Rivera freed her.)

That the script doesn't rise to the level of Hayek's performance is a disappointment, but nevertheless, Frida is a bold enough work of art to enjoy despite the pain.

click to enlarge Salma Hayek finally gets a chance to do some serious acting in her vibrant portrait of the Mexican artist in Frida.
  • Salma Hayek finally gets a chance to do some serious acting in her vibrant portrait of the Mexican artist in Frida.
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