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31 January

Leon Trotsky exiled, 1929

On this day in 1929, Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, aka Leon Trotsky, was exiled from the country he had helped create. A member of the victorious Bolsheviks in the revolution of 1917 (having earlier switched allegiance from the Mensheviks), Trotsky rose quickly through the party, proving himself decisively in the civil war against the Mensheviks in 1918. Ideologically he was loosely aligned with Lenin, believed in mass democracy, permanent revolution and internationalism and was opposed to the “socialism in one country” of Stalin. Trotsky found his ideas and those of the Left Opposition increasingly marginalised in the USSR and was also out-manoeuvred by the far wilier Stalin, who would make piecemeal alliances with whoever was most useful to him on the way to the top. Though one of the first members of the ruling Politburo, the head of the Red Army and Lenin’s heir presumptive, Trotsky was nudged aside when Lenin died in 1924, though he remained a public figure long after he had lost political force inside the leadership. By 1927 he had been formally removed from power. And in 1929 he was deported, heading first for Turkey, then France, then Norway, then finally Mexico, where he wrote The Revolution Betrayed, in which he railed against the “degenerated workers’ state” run by an undemocratic bureaucracy which, he prophesied, would eventually be either overthrown by a political revolution or would turn into a capitalist class. In the light of 1989 and the rise of the oligarchs he seems to have been right on both accounts. On 20 August 1940, having survived an assassination attempt earlier in the year, Trotsky was attacked with an ice axe by a USSR agent. He died the next day.

Frida (2002, dir: Julie Taymor)

The role that Mexican Salma Hayek was probably born to play, that of Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), she of the vivid paintings, the affairs with fellow artist Diego Rivera and exiled revolutionary Leon Trotsky, the bisexuality, the drug abuse and the infamous unibrow. Director Julie Taymor finds a way of locking all that together without going too low on one knee, and without bogging down in too much detail, in a film that looks very much like a labour of love for Taymor, though it obviously was one for Hayek too – years of lobbying, wads of her own money. The casting is the thing in this one: Hayek not only looks the part, she’s also a Mexican and unafraid to speak her mind, like Kahlo. But gaze too upon Alfred Molina as Rivera, a big tousled bear of a man brimming over with life and optimism. Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky. Even Edward Norton as Nelson Rockefeller. Reminding us that she’d been a roaring success with her counter-intuitive (masks, puppets) directing of The Lion King on Broadway, Taymor sprinkles a bit of magical realism here and there – such as when Kahlo has the terrible bus accident that broke her back, pelvis, ribs and collarbone and impaled her on an iron handrail, which pierced her womb. Some things don’t need spelling out too clearly. Cinema’s approach to the life of the artist is always a fraught affair. Why talk about the person at all if the art is the thing? And though the worked and reworked script does bog down in explication, seems hung up on the domestic arrangements of Kahlo and Rivera, and is shy of examining Kahlo’s motivations, Taymor makes up for it in the visuals. Why look for text when you can have image?

Why Watch?

  • The classic Salma Hayek role
  • Director Julie Taymor’s fabulous command of imagery
  • Imagine Madonna in the lead – it nearly happened
  • The under-rated Molina – another great performance

Frida – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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