LOS ANGELES, Oct. 31 (UPI) -- In the middle of the 20th century, no Mexican bulked larger on the global stage than the artist Diego Rivera. When not painting his titanic murals of the struggling poor, this Falstaffian 300-pounder divided his time between the Communist Party and café society parties.
Today, though, the art world cares little for pictures of suffering workers and peasants, so Rivera is largely overshadowed by his diminutive wife Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), the unibrowed self-portraitist whose life-long love affair with herself foreshadowed our Age of Madonna.
Salma Hayek's attractive and informative biopic "Frida" expands into the top 20 markets on Friday.
Kahlo was at least Rivera's equal as a fashionable hedonist. She slept with innumerable celebrities of both sexes, including Lenin's chief henchman Leon Trotsky, whom Rivera had invited to hole up from Stalin's wrath in their fortress-like home. Yet, soon after Trotsky's 1940 murder by a Soviet agent, Rivera and Kahlo were pleading to be readmitted to Mexico's arch-Stalinist Communist Party.
Kahlo boasted, "I was a member of the party before I met Diego and I think I am a better communist than he is or ever will be." One of her last painting was entitled "Stalin and I." Still, her devotion to the toiling masses didn't extend much beyond dressing up in drop-dead Ballet Folklorico-style costumes for many of her 200 self portraits.
Mexico's greatest poet, the Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz, used the examples of Rivera and Kahlo to ask whether someone could be both a great artist and "a despicable cur." Paz answered, "Yes."
As an appealing alternative to overly theoretical European art movements, Rivera suggested his wife study the "retablos" -- folk religious paintings on small metal sheets. She used bright Mexican colors, a slightly incompetent drawing style that looked naïve and cute, and lots of fun-to-decode fantasy symbols emphasizing her own martyrdom. In "Little Deer," she painted her face on a stag that has been pierced, like a four-legged St. Sebastian, by nine arrows, which represent her husband's nine most intolerable infidelities.
By painting herself over and over with the same baleful expression, she turned herself into her own logo. Now, when the public has learned to appreciate brilliant marketing ploys, she's earned a cult of personality. In 2001, the U.S. Post Office made this America-hating Stalinist the first Hispanic woman to have her own stamp.
Kahlo's popularity has also been fueled by her victimhood. Polio withered one leg and in a horrendous trolley crash at age 18 she was impaled upon a metal pole. She endured more than 30 operations, although some scholars believe certain of her surgeries were medically unnecessary, but were instead feminine wiles intended to keep her husband from straying.
Further, as a disabled bisexual Hispanic woman, she's perfect for the era of multiculturalism.
Indeed, the soap opera behind the making of "Frida" was suffused with identity politics. Originally, Laura San Giacomo (now of TV's "Just Shoot Me"), who looks much like the self-portraitist, was on board. Then, Madonna (who, not surprisingly, collects Kahlo's paintings) wanted to play her. Both Italian-American actresses, however, were blackballed by protests by Latina actresses. Later, Jennifer Lopez, a New York-born Puerto Rican, threw her hat into the ring.
Eventually, Hayek, the hourglass-shaped Mexican actress best known for "The Wild Wild West," assembled the winning project. Their close resemblance is probably helped by Kahlo having been half-Mexican and half-Jewish, while Hayek is half-Mexican and half-Lebanese. (British actor Alfred Molina, who is terrific as Rivera, has been the subject of protests for not being Mexican.)
Julie Taymor, the celebrated creator of the stage version of "The Lion King," directed. Taymor might have the potential to become the most visually talented woman director since Hitler's cinematic accomplice, Leni Riefenstahl, who turned 100 in August. Still, Taymor's gifts at present are more static than dynamic.
Watching Hayek, one of the world's loveliest woman, wear gorgeous dresses in colorful sets art directed by a near-genius makes "Frida" awfully easy on the eyes. Hayek and Taymor somewhat underplay Kahlo's physical suffering, focusing more on her energy, spunk, and almost random lustfulness.
The script whitewashes Kahlo's political and personal sins, but no more than you'd expect. Like most biopics that stick closer to the facts than did "A Beautiful Mind," "Frida" doesn't build much dramatic momentum.
Still, awkward biopics often raise more interesting questions than slick fiction. For example, why did so many self-indulgent artists such as Kahlo and Rivera strive to spread totalitarianism? The ascetic Lenin and Stalin wouldn't fit in well at their kind of parties.
By declaring themselves revolutionaries, however, artistic libertines could blame all the pain they caused the people who loved them on bourgeois society. Come the revolution, their true saintliness could finally manifest itself.
Being a communist meant never having to say you're sorry.
Rated a hard "R" for lots of sexuality/nudity and language.