In late 2021 I went to Mexico City on my first international vacation in the era of COVID. The world had changed and everything felt both exciting and, given how frail the suddenness of the pandemic made us feel, insignificant. I have always adored the Mexican capital (I gained 10 pounds in two weeks by having tacos at every shop I found) but this time it felt mournful. What place on Earth didn’t? One afternoon my mother and I walked over 30 blocks (public transportation still felt terrifying) to attend “Immersive Frida Kahlo,” one of those digital shows where an artist’s work is dissected and projected on enormous screens to create an “experience.”

Despite my skepticism, it was one of the most moving things I’d experienced since lockdown. Kahlo’s work, after all––despite its horrors and heartbreak––invites us to lean in and peer into her world. Surrounded by enormous jungles populated with tropical animals and symbols of the artist’s genius, I felt wonder and joy. It was like visiting someone else’s dream.

I can’t say I felt the same watching Carla Gutiérrez’s Frida, an expertly crafted but extremely reverential, biographical documentary that uses extracts from the artist’s diary as narration to suggest we’re listening to the story from the artist herself.

Interspersing archival images and footage with beautiful animations inspired by many of the artist’s efforts, Kahlo (Fernanda Echeverría del Rivero lends voice to the artist) shares her story chronologically. Perhaps here I should disclose that I adore Kahlo. I have read the biographies, I’ve watched the biopics (I prefer Ofelia Medina’s take to Salma Hayek’s), and visited museums and exhibitions all over the world just to see her works. Reading her diary has often helped me find solace when I’ve needed it. 

So: as a Kahlo-head (I don’t think there’s a name for us; I’d go with Friduchos) watching Frida gave me nothing new. I was too overprepared a student for this test. I found Gutiérrez’s intention of preserving her voice honorable and necessary; I agree that women and people who have been historically marginalized should be allowed and encouraged to tell their own stories. But this noble intention seems misguided when talking about the work of a visual artist, someone whose stories weren’t told in the literary form, but rather through symbols. Frida suggesting listening to an audiobook while watching a very good accompanying presentation.

It often appeared that, in this attempt to restore Kahlo’s voice, Gutiérrez forgot to include hers, making this a documentary without an artist’s perspective. Isn’t it presumptuous to assume these are the bits from her diary Kahlo would’ve used to tell her life story? I was moved by Gutiérrez’s love and clear admiration of Kahlo, but the overt reverence she shows by maintaining distance from the subject sometimes took me out of the film. 

Instead my mind wandered to wishing I knew how Gutiérrez felt the first time she saw one of Kahlo’s paintings in-person. Kahlo didn’t care what others thought her work meant; she was revolted by Breton and Co.’s assumption that she was a fellow surrealist. While men in Europe explored the subconscious and Freudian ideas through visuals, Frida’s creations were about her emotions––she channeled her life, not theories, through her work.

This is what makes her paintings so compelling. No one is indifferent; it’s impossible to not have a reaction. Some find it impossible to decipher––Kahlo herself was upset that Breton saw it as a Mexican handicraft. I find it moving, terrifying, and beautiful, but above all it puts a spell on me that I can’t explain and wouldn’t even know how to. The first time I saw Kahlo’s “The Broken Column” at the Dolores Olmedo Museum in Mexico I was stunned by its power. Painted shortly after she had spinal surgery at age 18 to correct the damage from the infamous trolley accident that almost killed her, the canvas shows a fragmented young woman who can’t make sense of what happened to her body. The painting told me a story and spoke to me in a way Frida couldn’t. As I stared into the broken figure looking at me from across time and space, all I wanted was to accompany her in pain and hold her hand.

Frida premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and arrives on Prime Video on March 15.

Grade: B-

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