• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Viva La Vida strips back the Frida Kahlo myth


directed by Giovanni Troilo

When style gives way to substance, a documentary on artist Frida Kahlo shines.

In 2000, City Gallery Wellington hosted an exhibition of modern Mexican art called Viva La Vida, including 12 works by Frida Kahlo. The paintings were powerful, calm, rich in symbolism, dominated by the direct, unsmiling gaze of the artist – “tough-minded revisions,” wrote Gregory O’Brien, “of the passive female subjects of Western art history”.

For the title of his new documentary on the revolutionary Mexican artist, Italian director Giovanni Troilo (Water Lilies of Monet: The Magic of Water and Light) uses the same words, taken from a still life of cut watermelons painted by Kahlo in 1954, Viva la Vida. She died eight days later.

Punctuated by the narration of Italian actor Asia Argento, the film takes us through the life of a woman who reasserted her vitality through her art, beginning in 1907 in leafy Coyoacán in Mexico City, where Frida is born to Spanish and indigenous parents. From here we fast-forward to 1925, to a busy intersection where a bus rams into a car. Eighteen-year-old Frida is left with a crushed foot, fractured leg, splintered spine and a handrail spearing her abdomen. “Now,” she wrote, “I live in a painful planet, transparent as ice.”

Her parents install a mirror above the bed and devise an easel. From this point her life story is mirrored in her art – her passion for pre-Hispanic Mexican culture, her marriage to socialist muralist Diego Rivera, the miscarriages, his affairs, her affairs, her enduring pain, all translated into a retablo-like iconography framing the unwavering gaze of the artist.

Troilo shakes down the film-maker’s kit in reconstructing Kahlo’s world, pulling out old film footage, photographs, interviews, roving mariachi performers, old cartoons, new animation.

To a dazzling score by Remo Anzovino, the film wheels away into long, pensive tracks of Mexico City with its paintbox-coloured buildings and tree-lined avenues, then further away to Tehuantepec, the heart of the ancient matriarchal Zapotec culture so admired by Kahlo.

To illustrate the two sides of Kahlo, we are introduced to two unspeaking characters. One is the strong, carefree young artist that might have been, exploring the beauty of the natural landscape and the mysticism of ancient Aztec ruins; the other, a solemn woman trapped inside her literal house of pain. This approach is taken from Kahlo’s own work – in Tree of Hope (1946) we see two Kahlos, one lying on a hospital bed slashed with surgical incisions, the other sitting upright, proud and strong – but these metaphorical flights labour the point of her curtailed world. Rather, it is the people, in particular her grand-niece Cristina Kahlo, photographer Graciela Iturbide and Hilda Trujillo Soto, director of the Frida Kahlo Museum, who reveal a more vulnerable, yet extraordinarily clear-sighted artist.

Soto is tasked with reopening the boxes and trunks of Kahlo’s possessions, sealed shut for 50 years under Rivera’s request. She reveals the necklaces, the traditional Mexican headwear, the shawls, the diminutive armoury of casts and braces that held the artist’s broken body. With Soto as our guide, the Kahlo myth is stripped back. “Through her objects,” she says, “we have discovered the person inside the artist … cheerful Frida, who knew how to turn pain into a work of art.” 



Video: Limelight Distribution

This article was first published in the February 8, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

For more on the political, cultural and literary life of the country, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and sign up to our weekly newsletter.