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Review: ‘Frida,’ now on Prime Video, a controversial but moving Kahlo portrait

Now on Prime Video, the densely embroidered documentary “Frida” pulls from many sources: home movies, archival footage, photographs, letters, its subject’s intimate diary, and reminiscence from friends and lovers of Frida Kahlo, Mexican artist and, later, global museum gift shop merchandise titan.

The film deserves your time, if only to find out where you stand on its primary point of debate. Working with animation creative director Sofía Inés Cázares Lira, first-time feature director Carla Gutiérrez elects to animate, selectively, the famous Kahlo paintings, not as fully animated expansions but by lending movement and fluidity to details within those paintings. “Frida” also manipulates the archival black-and-white footage, here and there. In the context of describing a specific sense memory, or tragic event, or love affair, a portion of the filmed footage gets a strategic splash of color.

Chronologically, “Frida” begins in 1910, three years after her birth in Mexico City. Her defining, though not creatively limiting, catastrophe came at age 18: the now-infamous trolley crash that sent a metal rod through Kahlo’s midsection, shattering her pelvis and causing lifelong anguish. First-hand accounts of the accident, heard in voiceover, remain vividly awful. Frida “screamed so loud,” her fellow art student friend remembers, “you couldn’t hear the ambulance’s siren.”

Fernanda Echevarría del Rivero gives voice to Kahlo throughout. To the film’s credit, we come to know a lot about Kahlo’s spiritual, sexual and artistic energies, far-flung and ever-seeking, and never simply in tragic mode.

Marrying — twice — the celebrated muralist Diego Rivera, Kahlo learned to navigate his ego, society’s gender biases and her imaginative vision of how her autobiography, as she lived it, could will her canvases into being, and with a beating, loving heart. Life with Rivera defied peace, or stability. Her painting “Memory, the Heart” found Kahlo exploring her emotional isolation between their two marriages. Her miscarriage left her disconsolate, and also led to the work titled “Henry Ford Hospital.”

On the couple’s much-anticipated 1931 New York visit, Rivera’s inaugural U.S. exhibition, a huge success, took place at the Museum of Modern Art. Kahlo’s initial excitement gave way soon enough to a pretty poor opinion of the moneyed American gawker class. Communists, friends of Leon Trotsky (Kahlo and Trotsky had an affair; Rivera, meantime, slept with one of Kahlo’s sisters and many others), the Kahlo/Rivera enterprise became the stuff of legend.

“Frida” captures the media stardom, while also keeping in mind they were ordinary humans undergoing extraordinary things. Kahlo loved cutting through pretense. “A bunch of idiots who get excited over the dumbest things,” she wrote in her diary of the Manhattan swells, in love with their formal wear. “I want to run and run until I get to Mexico.”

What “Frida” does, it does well. It also does too much, probably, crowding its subject with expressive add-ons. The animation, the actors’ readings of diary entries and related correspondence, the archival footage manipulation, the lively but insistent use of music: That’s a full plate. At times the visuals hint at the aesthetic of the average immersive 3D exhibit (not my favorite genre), at least one of which has showcased the work and life of Frida Kahlo.

But to reiterate: its worth seeing. Director Gutiérrez trained as an editor, working on the Julie Cohen and Betsy West-directed documentaries “RBG” (on Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and “Julia” (Child, that is), both deftly cut and nicely paced. The same goes for “Frida,” which, despite its busyness, sincerely embraces Kahlo the woman, as well as Kahlo the legend in the making. In her own time, and own words, she endured and painted “with the sole conviction to give myself pleasure, and the power to make a living with my trade.”

The R rating, by the way — typical, and typically dumb. A handful of f-words from Kahlo’s diary entries; some nudity in her paintings; how could kids under 17 survive it, without an adult in the room to embarrass them far more than they’d be embarrassed by the documentary?

“Frida”— 3 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for some language and nude artwork)

Running time: 1:27

How to watch: Now streaming on Prime Video

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com