Goya's Ghosts

2007, Movie, R, 114 mins


Milos Forman's gorgeously produced historical epic views 16 tumultuous years of Spanish history through the eyes of painter Francisco Goya. It isn't good, but it's never dull.

Madrid, 1792: Pious hypocrite Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) sees heretics, protestants, "Judaizers" and rational thinkers lurking in every shadow, poised to destroy the Catholic Church, and wholeheartedly supports the resumption of the Inquisition's repertory of horrors -- torture, secret imprisonment, forced confession, burning at the stake – at the same time he mounts a lively defense of the scandalous etchings Goya (Stellan Skarsgard, disfigured by a bulbous prosthetic nose) has produced of those same atrocities. After all, were the painter arrested he'd be unable to complete the handsome portrait Lorenzo has commissioned. Goya, meanwhile, is approached by wealthy merchant Tomas Bilbatua (Jose Luis Gomez), whose daughter, Ines (Nathalie Portman), is one of his favorite models. Ines has been arrested by the Inquisition, and Bilbatua eventually convinces the cautious Goya -- whose livelihood depends on cultivating wealthy and powerful patrons while sidestepping their reversals of fortune -- to speak to Lorenzo on Ines' behalf. Goya's intervention only makes matters worse: Lorenzo visits the imprisoned girl and, inflamed by her beauty, rapes her. He tries to brush off her distraught family with cruel platitudes and veiled threats, so Bilbatua, who's made of stern and practical stuff, pulls out both the carrot and the stick: He offers an enormous endowment to the church and improvises a home version of the Inquisition's methods, persuading Lorenzo to confess that he's the bastard son of apes and then using the confession to blackmail him. Lorenzo flees in disgrace just as news of the French Revolution portends momentous change.

Fifteen years later: Napoleon's army arrives to "liberate" Spain. Lorenzo returns as a high-ranking representative of the people's revolution, Ines is freed, half-mad and alone -- her family has been slaughtered – and the now-deaf Goya is again drawn into their sordid drama. Ines begs Goya to find the now-grown daughter she says she bore Lorenzo in prison, and Lorenzo, self-serving as ever, agrees to help but only wants to find the girl (also Portman), now a prostitute, before news of her existence sullies his reputation. And there's more – much, much more. Veteran screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, surrealist Luis Bunuel's frequent collaborator, may have penned an absurdist fable in which the nominal hero is relegated to the sidelines, innocent and guilty alike are tormented by twists of fate worthy of silent melodrama, and history grinds up individuals in its churning wheels . If so, his intent is undermined by Forman's measured, classical direction, the international mishmash of a cast that turns dialogue into a war of conflicting accents, and the unconvincing make up that transforms Portman into a scabby, snaggle-toothed gargoyle. The film's seriousness of intent is unimpeachable – Forman and Carriere see disturbing echoes of the modern world in 18th-century Spain -- but the execution borders on farce. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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