A paint-by-number portrait

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

At a time when American moviemakers are more open to exploring women characters than ever before, it's hard to think of a more exciting subject than the career of Frida Kahlo.

What a life this legendary Mexican artist had – great achievements in painting, a difficult marriage with fabled muralist Diego Rivera, even a close relationship with Leon Trotsky, the communist leader. She also experienced more than her share of tragedies, including a streetcar accident.

She was adventurous and forward-looking in everything she did. She was decades ahead of her time in her determination to follow her own path, regardless of social and cultural conventions. (See story, page 16.) "Frida," directed by Julie Taymor and starring Salma Hayek, gets the facts on screen.

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Sadly, that's all it manages to do. Perhaps intimidated by the strength of Kahlo's own artistic personality, Taymor ("Titus") seems hesitant in her filmmaking. And despite her commitment to this project, Hayek doesn't have the acting skills such a multifaceted character calls for.

The film's most disappointing aspect is its failure to make Kahlo the creative center of her own story. While there's a fair amount of talk about her intuitive ability to translate thoughts and emotions into painterly images, the paintings themselves seem to materialize out of nowhere, since the film rarely shows her in full-fledged creative mode.

The ideas and accomplishments of her husband, Rivera, are conveyed with a greater sense of energy and commitment, often making the movie seem like his biography rather than hers – the story of a fiery Mexican muralist with a wife who did some painting on the side. This is because Rivera is played by Alfred Molina, one of today's most compelling screen actors, and also because Hayek doesn't rise above the generally bland dialogue.

Taymor is at her best in brief animated sequences that give the movie bursts of extra vigor. The rest of the time she devotes herself to expressing the story's Mexican ambience through stereotyped symbols – chihuahuas, cacti, spicy Latin foods.

It's hard to go wrong with a vivid real-life event like Rivera's confrontation with American aristocrat Nelson Rockefeller, who was flummoxed when his communist hireling actually painted a communist mural for him; but this episode was more dramatically depicted in Tim Robbins's movie "Cradle Will Rock" three years ago. The scenes with Trotsky are least convincing of all, Geoffrey Rush's expressive face notwithstanding.

"Frida" was clearly a labor of love for Taymor and Hayek, and they've assembled a prominent cast – Edward Norton, Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas – to support their efforts. All deserve high marks for sincerity, but I doubt if the results would have satisfied Kahlo, whose originality in matters of life, art, and ideas was vastly more far-reaching.

• Rated R; contains sex, violence, and drugs.

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