The image of Frida Kahlo, the prominent Mexican painter of the early 20 century, is one of the most replicated and commercialized of any artist in the history of the world. From T-shirts to houseware, merchandise of all sorts emblazoned with her face has turned Kahlo into a kitschy, mainstream, decontextualized emblem for Mexican identity. It doesn’t help that the vast majority of her works are self-portraits. Onscreen, the Salma Hayek-starring Hollywood biopic from director Julie Taymor and Paul Leduc’s 1983’s Mexican-production “Frida Still Life” attempted to decipher the tehuana-clad iconoclast via scripted portrayals.
With all that cultural and media baggage on her shoulders, Carla Gutiérrez dares to construct a documentary using a unique approach to such an imposing subject. An editor taking on directorial duties for the first time, Gutierrez is no stranger to assembling nonfiction portraits of major figures, having cut titles like “RGB” and “Chavela” (coincidently about one of Kahlo’s numerous lovers, late Costa Rican-born singer Chavela Vargas). Told mostly in Spanish, Gutiérrez’s “Frida” succinctly encompasses her entire life and career linearly with the notable feature that its poignant, first-person insight was mined directly from Kahlo’s own writing, including her illustrated diary.
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Tasked with voicing Frida, performer Fernanda Echevarría del Rivero summons the woman’s defiant essence, giving precise intonation to each sentence — sometimes cheeky, others solemn — to convincingly incarnate Kahlo’s personality solely with words that accompany the visual components, including segments of previously unseen archival footage. There’s a raw, in-the-moment quality to her line delivery and to the text itself that often gives us the impression of having Kahlo adding live commentary to each of the most consequential moments of her life: the life-altering accident, her love-hate romance with promiscuous Diego Rivera, their trips to New York and Detroit (which she did not enjoy), her crushing miscarriage and her torrid affair with Soviet politician Leon Trotsky.
Interspersed as a direct point of entry into her psyche are digital re-creations of Kahlo’s paintings featuring animated elements. “The Two Fridas,” arguably her best-known work, where two distinctly dressed versions of herself are connected via their hearts, seems fit for this treatment courtesy of animation artist Sofia Cázares and Renata Galindo. But while adding movement is more visually dynamic than just mere stills of the artworks, the enhancement or reinvention feels minimal, perhaps intentionally.
Still, as far as respectfully making her surrealist oeuvre part of the already rich tapestry of moving parts that comprise the doc, the choice is mostly sound. “I paint because I need to,” Gutiérrez’s Frida says. That notion that her artistic expression was an extension of her inner turmoil is confirmed by some of the supporting characters, also speaking in first-person through voice actors, namely Rivera and her friend Lucile Blanch.
If not entirely revelatory, the doc is definitely visceral. Foul-mouthed and unabashedly open about her sexual desires, the Frida we are introduced to here is unbound. One candid montage features an assortment of Kahlo’s many lovers, male and female, to illustrate her proclivity for indulging in the pleasures of the flesh. Early on, Gutiérrez makes a point of noting how even as a child, Kahlo was reprimanded for asking “improper” inquiries — that part of her remained unchanged throughout the years. So did her undying adoration for her Mexican identity to a fault, at times at odds with the patriarchal gender norms she disdained but that still applied to most other women in the country at the time.
One of the most memorable chapters epitomizes her detestation for the ultra-wealthy and pompous intellectuals who rushed to rationalize her work. Following her divorce from Rivera, Kahlo painted prolifically out of the need to support herself. She accepted exhibits in New York and later in Paris under the wing of writer André Breton, whom she came to detest. There’s a peculiar flavor to hearing her insulting their self-centered tirades about the world from their pedestals that wouldn’t come across from only reading about her dislike of them. That emotional immediacy is where Gutiérrez succeeds.
Gutiérrez, who edited the film herself, does a remarkable job harnessing the myriad of materials and keeping a steady pace for a cohesive, tight finished product — even though the cradle-to-grave structure rings obvious. “Frida” feels somewhat definitive. If you only see one filmic piece about Kahlo, this may be the one that presents the most complete overview of both the biographical highlights and her multifaceted persona behind closed doors without turning it into a didactic lesson. Even those already familiar with the trajectory of Kahlo’s existence may find the delivery here raw, vulnerable, and refreshing.
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