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Frida

From the sides of tall buildings to tote bags and earrings, the likeness of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo can be found just about anywhere, so much so that she’s often recognized by just her first name. She is one of the most recognizable painters today, not just of her generation or in Mexican Modernism, but in the history of art. Her story and images are a source of inspiration and intrigue, inviting countless interpretations and riffs, from kitschy umbrellas and dolls sold in art museums gift shops to Julie Taymor’s 2002 drama, “Frida.” I’ve covered two exhibits on the artist and the movement she was a part of, and it’s always an experience to stand in front of one of her paintings and admire the many layers of details and meaning behind each work. Now, she’s the subject of Carla Gutierrez’s feature debut, “Frida,” an archive-rich documentary based mostly on Frida’s own words from her diaries, letters, and interviews. 

Frida is many things to many people. Such is the curse of becoming an icon. Yet, Gutierrez’s film incorporates the many complexities of the artist’s life—from her political awakening during the Zapatista era and subsequent communist activism, her tumultuous relationship with her womanizing husband Diego Rivera, and her many other lovers. On the screen, archival images and dozens of Frida’s paintings and sketches illustrate her story in creative ways. Frida writes extensively about her body, the accident that brought her a lifetime of pain and subsequent ailments and heartbreaks, including a miscarriage. She thumbs her nose at America and the surrealist movement that didn’t respect her idiosyncratic work. The audience gets a sense of the personality behind the canvas: her rebellious streak, her tender side with Rivera, her amorous side with other lovers, the comfort painting provided her. 

Beginning with shots of Frida Kahlo painting and smoking in her studio—a noticeably modest space given how significant these works would become mere decades after her death—the movie reveals its stylistic approach. Black-and-white images and footage are sometimes colorized to highlight a figure, most often Frida. Other times, random features in a shot will look as if it were a hand-colored silent film, like a multicolor selection of random hats in a crowd shot. At other points, colors will splash behind illustrations as if dropped from a watercolor palette, saturating the frame in an effort to make it more appealing to today’s viewers who are accustomed to a near-constant stream of moving images almost every time they open their phone. Recreated radio headlines and sound effects like lighting a cigarette and smoking unnecessarily fill the gaps where there was no narration. 

This next creative choice will be a divisive one—it may work for some viewers, but for myself, the decision to animate Frida’s paintings ultimately distanced me from the film. Her work is so visually rich, already full of life and movement, this added layer of 3D animated leaves that look like they’re moving or wiggling the arms of the monkeys draped around her shoulders is a misstep, one that I think cheapens the work, dulls the texture of her paintings and distracts from what the artist herself painted within the frame. It reminded me of those grotesque Instagram experiences animating the works of Vincent van Gogh. In “Frida,” a flag waves like an old Web 1.0 gif, a stream of fire looks like a waterfall fountain you’d see in a spa in the ‘00s, and tears are animated to stream down the painting’s face even though the figure is already in agony. It’s as if the film doesn’t trust Frida’s images to speak for themselves. 

Although I disagree with the visual style of the film, Gutierrez was clearly inspired by Frida’s work, and her love of the subject shines through in its dedication to using archival images and Frida’s own words. They are kept in their original Spanish, which if you understand the language, you’ll catch the idioms that make her prose more poetic, sometimes even funnier, than the direct subtitled translation. It’s a labor of love to compile all of the complexities of Frida Kahlo’s story, and I wish I enjoyed this “Frida” more. 

This review was filed from the Sundance Film Festival. It premieres on Prime Video on March 15th.

Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo is a critic, journalist, programmer, and curator based in New York City. She is the Senior Film Programmer at the Jacob Burns Film Center and a contributor to RogerEbert.com.

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Film Credits

Frida movie poster

Frida (2024)

87 minutes

Cast

Frida Kahlo as Self (archive footage)

Director

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