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‘Frida’ Review: The Famed Artist’s Life is Explored in Dazzling Color and Animation

Oftentimes, documentaries stand too far away from their subjects so the degrees of separation that come with time aren’t always a negative for the subgenre, but there’s no denying the magic that comes with a first-hand approach. “Frida,” the new documentary by Carla Gutierrez playing in competition at Sundance, proves that the right proximity to the subject can yield magical and exciting results when exploring someone’s real-life story.

“Frida” is a beautifully visceral account of the life and soul of the legendary surrealist artist Frida Kahlo. Using only archival footage, photos, and writings—with a through-line of the narrative directly from Kahlo’s own verse and the voices of those who loved her—the documentary crafts a truly full picture of the painter’s journey, weaving her paintings into the hallmarks of her life.

Gutierrez’s film is the first time Kahlo’s life is narrated by her own writing and the project does an incredible job of combining all of its visual and auditory elements to shape the narrative of the artist’s world, being moved forward much like our own: by triumphs, tribulations, revelations, heartbreak, and curiosity.

The stories and emotions behind her most recognizable—and some of her more obscure—works come clear into view and every thought behind the art is laid bare through the definitive intentions of the artist.

Many of Kahlo’s works are part of the film and in exploring them “Frida” employs stunning animation sequences that quite literally brings the artist’s paintings to life. The works—animated by an all-Latinx crew lead by Renata Galindo and Sofía Cázares—become two-dimensional delights, moving where they otherwise wouldn’t to build the rich inner life of Kahlo’s art.

It’s a lovely touch that deepens the connections between Kahlo’s words and the strokes of her brush. Going a step further, the film takes on a smart use of color strategically placed into black and white footage that immediately invokes painting to the viewer. It’s clear the visual aspects of the doc were crafted with great care for the emotional rollercoaster that was Kahlo’s storied life.

Many of these choices, and why they work so well, are the happy results of strong editing and structure. With Gutierrez in the director’s chair and chief of the editing room, we get a cohesive and tight framework that knows exactly where it wants to go and which tactics it wants to use to get there, whether that be animation, archival material or a combination therein.

Not only does the filmmaker follow Kahlo’s story to the letter—thanks in large part to a detailed map of archival materials sourced specifically for this film—but she finds a way of telling it that feels true to the subject. That feeling is owed to Gutierrez’s strong and assured self-collaboration between her directorial and editing impulses.

Tying the whole vibe of the project together is an undeniably fun score by Mexican composer Víctor Hernández Stumpfhauser. Each selection the musician wrote for the film meets the emotional moment of Kahlo’s story with the right tone, building a soundscape that truly represents the artist in every stage of her journey. Stumpfhauser’s score feels intrinsically Mexican and Latin American, pulling directly from the heritage Kahlo so strongly identified with. The decision to lean into these cultural sounds strengthens the tonal scope of the composer’s music, which in turn helps bolster the emotional core of Kahlo’s life as we see it unfold.

At the same time, the music also fosters a sense of modernity and excitement, suggesting that the composer was also inspired by how forward-thinking Kahlo always was. She was a rule-breaker and a risk-taker, and the film’s bubbly and inviting score mirrors her lust for the world and natural impulse to live a life that was ahead of her time. The film’s score is the final puzzle piece that—along with Gutierrez’s direction and editing, the structural layout of Kahlo’s story, all the archival materials, and the ingenious animation—allows the audience to experience the painter as she truly was, unencumbered by the veil of a private life.

“The art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon around a bomb,” surrealist Andre Breton famously said after he first encountered the artist’s singular work. It’s certainly true that her art was incendiary, but so was her life, her capacity to feel and her wild heart. Now, with a beautiful and expansive film like “Frida,” the modern world has a chance to get to know her beyond the face value of her art and the images that have come to define her in the zeitgeist.

Even better, the world has a chance to get to know her as she really was, in the way she was known fully by the people who loved her. After all, what more could you want from a documentary than the best view of the intricacies of the subject? In Gutierrez’s vivid and moving film, Kahlo is in no less than full, glorious view.

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