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The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo

(US DVD: 28 Feb 2006)

The Lightning Bolts of Politics

In 2002, Salma Hayek and Julie Taymor resurrected Frida Kahlo in their Oscar-nominated Frida, introducing a new generation to the compelling works of one of the 20th century’s greatest painters. Now, PBS’ The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo, offers another vision of the Mexican iconoclast. Narrated by Rita Moreno, Amy Stechler’s documentary eloquently balances the zeitgeist of revolutionary Mexico with Kahlo’s awakening.


Born in 1907 to an educated family of European and native Indian heritage, the precocious Kahlo was inspired by the ideological war that surrounded her. Even as a child, she was impulsive and unusual, associating with boys more than other girls, dressing like them and pursuing her interests aggressively. She spoke three languages, argued philosophy, and was one of the first girls chosen to attend the esteemed National Preparatory School.


But Kahlo’s strength masked vulnerability. Afflicted with polio when she was six and observer to her father’s epilepsy, she was acutely aware of the fragility of life. She endured crippling injuries at age 18 when a horrific bus accident impaled and nearly killed her. One friend remembers, “They had to put her back together in sections.” Confined by a lengthy convalescence, she found new life in oil paints.


As Life and Times shows, passion and sacrifice are central to Frida Kahlo’s work, almost Catholic in their severity. “I became old in instants,” she wrote after the crash, and her art reflects a sage, if morbid, new persona. Her Girl with a Death Mask shows a stark resignation to the loss of her childhood. On canvas, she showed emotions bursting quite literally from her body, in color-saturated tendrils both human and mechanical. As the camera pans slowly over these wrenching early works, it’s never long enough. Viewers will want to pause the DVD, for each image seems to want to be loved just a little bit longer.


As is well known, Kahlo’s sense of urgency attracted the man who would become her muse and her curse, celebrated muralist Diego Rivera. Six feet tall and weighing 300 pounds, Rivera was imposing. His larger-scale works were as epic as hers were intimate, and yet the two personalities occupied the same circle. Rivera pioneered the Mexican School of art, showcasing the colors and achievements of humanity. He was a “bull of genesis,” as Kahlo wrote, and hero to the people of Mexico. They traveled internationally, hosted political and artistic luminaries from around the world, and enjoyed widespread recognition, media superstars of their day. But Diego’s infidelities were legendary, and they hurt Frida more than her physical infirmities.


Kahlo’s own journal provides much of the film’s narrative, Lila Downs’ English language voiceover providing her perspective, profound and singular. Stechler’s film includes archival photographs and the couple’s home videos, showing Kahlo and Rivera in moments that seem candid and uncensored (even given their awareness of the cameras). Kahlo exudes a sexy mystique even on 80-year-old photo paper, the black and white tones contrasting effectively with the film’s rich colors.


Life and Times provides images of the “times” as well, including the cultural and political revolution that marked Mexico’s freedom from centuries of European oppression. The national history—encompassing Mayan mythology, Spanish conquest, French aristocracy, and latent communism—here parallels Kahlo’s. But if her bold themes and colors were undeniably “Mexican,” she also painted her own experiences, beyond national or even gendered identity.


She wrote that she was moved by “the lightning bolts of politics,” and enamored of its international idols. Her inner circle comprised some of the century’s most engaging figures, Trotsky, Picasso, Breton, and Dali. The documentary makes great use of Kahlo’s biographer, Hayden Herrera, as well as art historian Victor Zamudio Taylor, whose discussions of her work reveal, for instance, the surprising effect she had on the nascent French surrealist movement.


Surviving friends, such as writers Carlos Fuentes and Carlos Monsivais, recall details of Kahlo’s life, including the stir she caused when she arrived by hospital bed to her first gallery showing. The woman would not be contained. It is her students, however, whose testimony is most inspiring, as they remember her irreverent humor, like the time she brought them to Conchita Chapel to study religious art, exclaiming, “Boys! Come see the sadistic Christ!”


The DVD’s special features are limited to a collection of anecdotes from the four prodigies who would come to be known as “the Fridos,” Kahlo’s most loyal students. She let them do what they wanted, turning the streets of Mexico City into their classroom. Famed pupil Arturo Garcia Bustos can’t conceal his smile when recounting how Frida would convince him and the others to join her at the movies, rather than return to school in the afternoon. They adored her, their stories evoking her radiant energy.


As Life and Times shows, Kahlo was angry at and in love with the world at the same time. “I am becoming a serious person,” she declares in her journal, but she was always serious, about her work, lovers, and politics. As journalist and friend Elena Poniatowska recalls, “Everything that she couldn’t do, she loved to do!” She was as vibrant and compelling as her art.

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