We're told that Salma Hayek has been trying to get a film biography of the artist Frida Kahlo made for years, a biography that would give her the starring role; the version now playing proves her determination well worth the wait. Director Julie Taymor, who made her reputation with the Broadway production of "The Lion King" and confirmed it with her dazzling first film, "Titus," has again shown her genius for composing sensual, visceral images of great power. In "Titus" they were horrific; here they are erotic and beautiful.
Kahlo, born in 1907 to a German-Jewish immigrant to Mexico and his Catholic wife, arrives in this film as the deliciously headstrong schoolgirl painter who demands that the already-famous muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) come down off his scaffold to see her paintings. Soon they are lovers, the beginning of a lifelong relationship that includes a marriage that's more like a war of attrition punctuated by periodic explosions, many affairs - usually but not always his - much beautiful painting, and a final arrangement in which they live in two neighboring houses connected by a bridge.
Tragedy struck almost immediately; Frida was severely injured in a trolley accident, with a metal rod driven into her back and out through her vagina. She had repeated operations, and never again walked without pain, but she also never stopped painting. Always overshadowed by Rivera's outsized work and notoriety, her reputation has fluctuated over the years; certainly the film will renew interest in her work.
Taymor and her writers have made a wonderful film of this thirty-year epic, pausing frequently to give us great moments of sex and power and beauty. The cast includes many name actors who turn up at appropriate moments. Early on, Ashley Judd shows up as Frida's erotic tango partner the photographer Tina Modotti. Antonio Banderas is Rivera's friend and rival David Alfaro Siqueiros. Later, Edward Norton plays the young Nelson Rockefeller, who in what turned out to be one of the great art scandals of the 20th century hired Rivera to create a huge mural honoring workers, for the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and then discovered that he'd painted in the head of Lenin. When Rivera declined to remove it Rockefeller paid him off, and had the wall cut down and removed. And toward the end, Geoffrey Rush as the exiled Leon Trotsky comes to live with them in Mexico City, and Frida has an affair with him.
But the key to the film lies in the performances of Hayek and Molina, and they are dazzling. Hayek has created a Frida Kahlo who lights up the screen with sex and wit and power; Molina, pudgy and ugly like the real Rivera, is irresistible; we see the incredible magnetism that attracts women to him every day, every year of his life. Even his first wife lives upstairs from them and serves them his favorite breakfast on the day after their wedding. Kahlo and Rivera seem to need their fights and lovemaking and separations and reconciliations and affairs as much as they need food and (occasional) sleep. Taymor has made a beautiful and erotic and at least artistically if not literally valid film and it is a triumph.