Frida Kahlo is perhaps the most famous female painter from Latin America, not only for her extraordinary body of work, but also for the manner in which she overcame insurmountable odds and handicaps since childhood to live a life as colourful as her work itself. She is also associated with some historic men of her era, but she was almost forgotten outside Mexico until two remarkable films, significantly the later one that introduced her to the wider world, me included.
I’ve since learned more about Frida Kahlo and her work, and even recently through an interesting novel by Meaghan Delahunt called In the Blue House, which charts Leon Trotsky’s exile in Mexico, where he was a guest of Frida and Diego Rivera, her famous muralist husband.
Frida Kahlo in brief:
Born to a German Jewish father and Spanish-Amerindian mother, she was struck by polio as a child, which nevertheless didn’t stop her from participating in sporting activities. But fate deals a serious blow when she has a horrendous accident while travelling in a bus, which renders her cripple for the rest of her life – this was even before she had decided to become a painter. But not only did she recover, she went on to become an accomplished painter, to the extent that even her husband, the famous Rivera opined she was more talented than him. Politically active, she was an ardent advocate of socialism and belonged to an elite circle of artists and thinkers, some of whom, apart from her husband included muralist Siqueiros, and Lenin’s former colleague and founder of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky. She was also sexually independent, taking several men and women as lovers (including Trotsky) – both she and her husband led a rather bohemian lifestyle. But Mexico was at the heart of whatever she did – she had a strong connection with American Indian culture, which was reflected in her art and work. For more informed reading, I suggest along with the above novel, The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait, and also this Wikipedia Link.
Frida [2002, Mexico, USA]
I will start with this film, which was my introduction to Frida Kahlo – the Academy award nominated 2002 film by Julie Taymour, “Frida”, starring Salma Hayek in the titular role. And in a way it is also the best vehicle for discovering Frida Kahlo.
It focuses on her life in brief, her relationship with husband Diego, her travails and triumphs. This is a suitable introduction to those who don’t know anything about Frida Kahlo – some details are skimmed past, but there’s only so much you can fit into a film. The costumes, art direction and soundtrack is particularly superb in this production – they even won a couple of Oscars – even if I felt the soundtrack could have been more generous with the mariachi than tango. Nevertheless, Highly Recommended Viewing.
Frida, Naturaleza Viva [1984, Mexico]
Actress and activist Ofelia Medina commissioned Paul Leduc to make a feature on Frida Kahlo long before many people even knew about the painter. The film however is for those who already know a little bit about Frida Kahlo, because it is more of a montage of her life rather than a conventional biography. Most of the events are recollections of Frida as she lay in death bed, and are in a way more personal. But the casting of the main characters is simply superb – Ofelia Medina who plays the eponymous role, is Frida personified in both body and spirit.
I simply loved the way the film was made – exquisite soundtrack bursts into life in an otherwise silent film – there’s barely any dialogue, and includes long takes, allowing us to reflect on the characters, European style. The film is very non-commercial – a huge risk in those days, but it paid off with some well deserved Ariel awards, setting up several careers in the right trajectory. Unfortunately the DVD I have is not a remastered version – I doubt if it had ever been, and therefore couldn’t comment on the cinematography, but the direction and performances by the main cast is flawless. That’s why, despite the average DVD quality, this film is Recommended Viewing.