There is some irony in the choice of phrase accompanying Frida as the title of this documentary. Viva La Vida translates as Long Live Life. Not, as some might think, a reference to the Coldplay song, but to her final painting. A phrase added in the last days before her death in 1954. The irony is that Frida Kahlo’s life was difficult. Marred by illness, accidents, miscarriages, and heartbreak.
Frida: Viva La Vida attempts to give us an insight into the conflict in Frida’s mind. It tests your patience at times as we are shown extended images of landscapes, with no dialogue or music to compliment them. In between these challenging sequences though, director Giovanni Troilo gives us an unflinching view into the conflict and duality within Kahlo’s life.
After an accident aged 15 that leaves her horribly injured, Frida is restricted to her bed for several months. It is during this time that she begins to paint. The suggestion is that her pain created her art, and it’s difficult to see any other view with what we are presented here. Her paintings are some of the most famous in the world, not for their technical acuity (though there is more than she may be given credit for) but for their honest portrayals of her trauma. Some of this is cultural – she is partially of indigenous descent and is fascinated by the combining customs of Indigenous and Hispanic people. Other aspects relate to her accident, her romantic difficulties with her husband, Diego Rivera, who was during her lifetime a more famous painter than she was. Much of her trauma however relates to her lost children. And her paintings display this in stark and gruesome detail.
The image we are given is of a Frida of two halves. Between the interviews with experts and art historians, we see stylised re-enactments of events via two different young women. They both passively avoid looking at the camera, appearing vulnerable and fragile. There is also narration from Asia Argento. In stark contrast she is filmed making intense unblinking eye contact with the audience, a reflection of the Frida in her paintings, and the image she projected to the world.
Frida: Viva La Vida finds it’s strength in how it establishes Frida as utterly central to Mexican culture. We visit multiple museums, view her artwork and hear analysis of it, and see how her unique view of the life and home she loved has influenced the modernity of Mexico City. Even abroad now, it’s difficult to visit a shop without finding various nick nacks, t-shirts, flowerpots, and any other tat you can think of, decorated with Frida’s distinctive monobrowed face. More irony here, considering her staunch communist views, she’s unlikely to have approved of the strong capitalism involved in merchandising.
Frida: Viva La Vida provides a fascinating but challenging portrait of one of the greatest artists of the modern age. That’s not to say it’s inaccessible, there is much to enjoy and learn from it, but some of the stylistic choices may feel like they are beginning to outstay their welcome. If you are a fan of Frida’s work however, it is very much worth a watch.
Frida: Viva La Vida is released in select cinemas on October 1st, followed by DVD and on demand services on October 25th.