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Movie Review : 'Frida' Fuses Art, Radical Politics


Art and politics mix explosively in the subject of "Frida: Naturaleza Vida" (opening today at the Nuart) but their handling here is gentle. The Film's style is misty, sensuous, tropical: full of lingering camera movements, strange elliptical jumps and a narrative structure modeled on a fever dream.

Director Paul Leduc has taken as his subject, Frida Kahlo, artist and wife of the Mexican painter and Communist leader, Diego Rivera.

And Rivera is portrayed by Juan Jose Gurrola as a bellicose, fiery bull of a guy, a genius-glutton, brandishing his vices like an athlete's trophies. When Leon Trotsky dines with the Riveras, Riveras suggests that Trotsky and Stalin could have been buddies if only they'd toured the brothels together, drunk.

Frida (Ofelia Medina), on the other hand, is shown as an eternal long-suffering victim: handicapped by a bus accident at 16 and condemned to critical indifference (until recently) while her philandering husband hogs the spotlight. Near the end, Kahlo seems less a feminist exemplar than some latter-day female Job.

Leduc tells this story in a fragmented structure, supposedly dictated by Kahlo's memories in her last, dying delirium. The director drowns these recollections in hothouse colors, his camera making slow, dreamy slides through the mirror-laden houses and sultry gardens, as if moving through one of Max Ophuls' antechambers. The chronology leaps back and forth: Frida's life with her wealthy puppeteer father (Claudio Brook); her volatile union with Rivera; clashes with the painter Siqueiros; and a parade of causes from Zapata's revolution to peace marches in the '50s. (Kahlo died in 1954.)

Midway through, in a kind of ultimate fusion of art, love and politics, we watch the professorial Trotsky (Max Kerlow) in a long sylvan tracking shot, as his off-screen voice recites a love letter to Frida. The moment seems naively romantic, endearingly sentimental, and, perhaps carried away by it, Leduc later evades showing us Trotsky's murder by a Stalinist assassin. Instead, curiously, we see what look like federales surrounding a hacienda and riddling Trotsky's photo with bullets

Both Rivera and Kahlo tried to mix the sophisticated and primitive in their art appeal to both the humbly educated and the urbane.

And, to a degree, that's what Leduc is trying to do here--sympathetically but not entirely successfully. He has a tendency to treat Rivera and Kahlo--and Trotsky--as sacred figures; this reverence is something of a stumbling block. At first, his structure seems self-consciously eccentric: the dislocated editing and sensuous tracks mixed with over-florid acting, vast portentous silences, peasant guitar interludes and strident symbols.

But later the style begins to jell--and though Gurrola's Rivera is never much more than a cartoon, Medina's Frida assumes some tragic stature and dignity. Out of her suffering and the chaos of her recollections suddenly blooms a rose of peace or pathos. And "Frida: Naturaleza Viva" (Times-rated: Mature for sex, nudity and language) becomes something more than the minority art-political drama, preaching to the converted, which it seemed in danger of becoming.

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