Goya’s Ghosts, as has already been declared with near-unanimity by European critics, is not a good movie. One of those awkward international co-productions, it was shot in Spain with a polyglot cast speaking mostly English, and the accents and acting styles clash in a thespian world war. Yet for all that, Milos Forman’s latest costume drama is pretty interesting. In addition to being beautiful to watch, the film sparks off some compelling ideas even while its story misfires.
This is not a biopic of Francisco Goya. Though the painter (played by the decidedly un-Iberian Stellan Skarsgård) is at the center of the action, it’s two of his “ghosts”—his models—who drive the story. Like Carlos Saura, who made 1999’s Goya in Bordeaux, Forman takes his visual style from the artist’s work, known for its both literal and metaphorical darkness. But Forman doesn’t emulate Saura’s attempt to merge Goya with his work. The turbulence of the painter’s canvases, in Forman’s interpretation, reflects not his inner struggles but Spain’s outer ones. The story, roughly split between 1792 and 1807, encompasses the Spanish Inquisition, Napoleon’s conquest of Spain, and Britain’s restoration of the Spanish monarchy. These were not the sort of times that inspired paintings of waterlilies.
Goya’s Ghosts might initially seem to be Forman’s latest ode to insurgent genius, in the mode of Amadeus, and perhaps closer to The People vs. Larry Flynt. The film opens with some of the artist’s satirical “Caprichos” etchings, which depict corruption in society and the church. After giving the audience a look at these prints, Forman puts them in the hands of the monks leading the now-weakened Inquisition. The Inquisitor General (Michael Lonsdale) deplores the images and is concerned that Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) has hired their creator to paint his portrait. Lorenzo argues that the problem is not the artist but the world he accurately depicts. He says that the Inquisition should become more vigilant, a proposal that will soon affect another of Goya’s ghosts.
The daughter of a wealthy merchant, Ines (Natalie Portman) is posing for Goya during the same weeks as Lorenzo, and the monk sees the young beauty’s portrait in the painter’s studio. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that, soon after, Ines is summoned by the Inquisition and accused of secretly engaging in “Jewish rituals.” The charge is baseless, but since Ines is (unknowingly) the descendent of Jewish converts, the monks decide she must be “put to the question”—that is, tortured. Unsurprisingly, she confesses to whatever sins the interrogators suggest.
With a little help from Goya, Ines’ anguished father ensnares Lorenzo in his own forced confession, although without the desired result. The monk’s reputation is destroyed, and he must flee the country, yet Ines remains in prison, where she gives birth to a daughter. Meanwhile, Goya paints an unflattering portrait of the queen, but King Carlos IV (played, bizarrely, by Randy Quaid) is distracted from this offense by news from Paris: The king of France has been decapitated. King Carlos responds with one of the film’s clunkier lines: “My cousin Louis?”
Fifteen years later, Goya is deaf and bitter, and Ines and Lorenzo begin their respective second acts. The monk, now a disciple of the atheistic French enlightenment, returns as an emissary of Napoleon. The Inquisition is abolished, and its prisoners are set free. Insane from years of imprisonment and deprivation, Ines wanders the streets looking for her daughter, Alicia (also played by Portman), who’s become a prostitute. She encounters a Madrid that’s a bloody madhouse—and the Duke of Wellington hasn’t even invaded yet.
Scripted by Forman and Jean-Claude Carriére, who wrote the director’s Valmont and many other European historical pictures, Goya’s Ghosts is both ambitious and timely. (Surely Portman was thinking of Abu Ghraib when she took this role.) Yet very little except Javier Aguirresarobe’s chiaroscuro cinematography works as intended. Skarsgård is an unconvincing Goya, Bardem struggles with both his overloaded role and English pronunciation, and Portman is one of those Hollywood princesses who’s just not believable in period dress. As a Spanish-language production without international stars, Goya’s Ghosts would probably have been spurned by financiers. But Forman’s consideration of power, hypocrisy, and brutality would have been more plausible without all the concessions to a U.S. market that will probably ignore the film anyway.