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Byline: Glenn Whipp Film Critic

WHEN WE FIRST meet Frida Kahlo in Julie Taymor's biopic, ``Frida,'' she's a spunky Mexican schoolgirl sneaking boyfriends in and out her bedroom window, wearing a man's pinstriped suit in a family photo and spying on the great muralist Diego Rivera as he paints a portrait of a nude woman.

These sketches of a carefree Frida last about 10 minutes, and then Taymor gives us the moment that changes Kahlo's life - a 1925 trolley accident that leaves her impaled on a rod. Taymor stages the collision with an artistic flourish. Salma Hayek, playing Kahlo, lies perfectly posed on the trolley floor while an overhead camera captures the pooling blood on the floor and gold glitter floating over her motionless body. The subtext: This is the instant where pain and magic merge. This is the moment that Frida Kahlo was born.

It's an exquisite image, and Taymor fills ``Frida'' with dozens of similarly amazing visual grace notes. Appropriately enough, in a movie about an artist, it's the art we remember. ``Frida'' may follow the predictable rhythms of a conventional movie biography, but Taymor (known best for directing the stage version of ``The Lion King'') has enough passion for Kahlo's surrealistic paintings to bring them to life in a way that does justice to the woman's immense talent and vital spirit.

``Frida'' came by committee. Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava and Anne Thomas are credited with the screenplay, but Hayek's boyfriend, Edward Norton (who also appears in the movie as Nelson Rockefeller), did a major rewrite. Certainly one gets the sense of perpetual dissatisfaction, and it's easy to see why. The movie's structure and language run a poor second to Taymor's visual flair and, in fact, sometimes get in the way of the story. The scenes that stick with you - like the trolley accident - contain no dialogue at all.

The bulk of the movie's two-hour running time is devoted to Kahlo's relationship with Rivera. While laid up in bed in a full-body cast (the coming-out party is beautifully rendered like a butterfly leaving its cocoon), Kahlo pours all her pain and loneliness into her art. After she's able to walk again, she asks Rivera (Alfred Molina) to critique her work. Their mutual respect turns into friendship, which leads to sex, which leads to marriage, even though Rivera warns her that it's ``physiologically impossible'' for him to be faithful.

Kahlo's mother calls their union the ``marriage of an elephant and a dolphin.'' And sure enough, ``Frida'' comfortably settles into a marital drama in which each new development can be easily anticipated. Some other famous faces make token appearances: exiled Russian Communist Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) and insurrectionist Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd). But the story always comes back to Rivera and Kahlo and their unconventional, tumultuous relationship.

And that's OK, because Hayek and Molina have charisma to spare. For many, Hayek will be a revelation. Her Kahlo is a combination of playful vibrancy and ferocious determination, and if Hayek sometimes seems a bit lost behind the costumes and the makeup, she makes up for it with a life force that never ebbs. As for Molina, he makes us feel something resembling empathy for this flawed, wounded bear of a man and in the process nearly steals the movie.

But ``Frida'' is very much Taymor's film, signaling (after her directorial debut, ``Titus'') the arrival of a genuine cinematic stylist. When she pops Kahlo's paintings into the movie and makes them unfold before your eyes, you understand why the school is called magic realism. If Taymor had only found a way to similarly transcend the movie's standard biopic trappings and a corresponding sense of tidiness, she might have created her first masterpiece. As it is, ``Frida'' remains a wonder to behold.

FRIDA - Three stars

(R: sexuality, nudity and language)

Starring: Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush.

Director: Julie Taymor.

Running time: 1 hr. 59 min.

Playing: Laemmle's Royal Theater in West Los Angeles.

In a nutshell: In a movie about surrealistic artist Frida Kahlo, it's appropriate that the visuals are the standout element.
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Title Annotation:Review; U
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 25, 2002

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