Goya’s Ghosts

| July 22, 2007

Finally opening across the U.S. this week, Goya’s Ghosts brings co-writer/director Milos Forman back to the period dramas and tales of madness with which he has made his name. Telling the story of the events that inspired the works of Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, Forman employs a myriad number of styles, from satire to black comedy, emotional drama to graphic horror. While he is never quite successful in exploring Goya as a character, Forman never lets the film drag as events play out over a span of more than fifteen years.
Lorenzo (Javier Bardem, Before Night Falls) is a monk with the Spanish Inquisition who is immediately shown as a man of many contradictions. While he pushes for the Inquisition to return to methods that make the people fear God again, he defends the work of Goya (Stellan Skarsgard, Ronin) that is often critical of the clergy. As a result of Lorenzo’s push for a more aggressive pursuit of heretics, Ines (Natalie Portman, Garden State), one of Goya’s models, is arrested for suspicion of being a Jew (because she doesn’t like pork). Her subsequent false confession while being tortured sets into motion a series of events that keep the three characters fates intertwined through revolutions, invasions by foreign armies, and imprisonment.
I honestly don’t know how much, if any, of the story is based on fact. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. The premise is really just an excuse that allows Forman to use his decidedly playful sense of storytelling. As he did with Amadeus, he presents a film that revolves around the work and life of an artist, but reduces that artist to a supporting player. Here, Goya is portrayed as a talented but cowardly man who never takes a stand. Even when Ines is arrested, he only does the bare minimum he can to help her, fearing that if he does more, the Inquisition might turn their eyes toward him. The character we are asked to follow is Lorenzo. It’s a difficult task to ask of the audience as Lorenzo shows himself to be morally reprehensible at nearly every turn of the film. Still, it goes to Forman’s clever sense of story and Bardem’s humanizing portrayal that moments of audience sympathy can still shine through for this despicable character.
Forman takes visual and story inspiration from Goya’s works. While he painted portraits of royalty and clergy, he also produced some of the most surreal and horrific engravings that mocked these same groups. Forman plays with those contradictions, by sandwiching scenes of dry humor and surprising humanity between sequences of explicit torture and brutal warfare. It’s a delicate juggling act that isn’t always successful, keeping the film from completely gelling as a cohesive whole, but it sure is entertaining.
Like the film, the performances are all over the place. Bardem is scary, pathetic and ultimately human, showcasing all of his talents in a great role. Skarsgard is solid, but never taps into anything that makes us care for Goya beyond his art. To be fair, this is just as much a fault of the script as it is the actor. The same can be said for Portman. Her Ines exists solely as a symbol of innocence caught up in events beyond her understanding. We are never given a sense of who she is as a person. The oddest performance (and casting choice) comes courtesy of Randy Quaid (Kingpin) as King Carlos IV. His introduction is hilarious and sets him up as a buffoon. But, like Lorenzo, he becomes surprisingly sympathetic. In this small role, through not much more than knowing glances and a sense of bubbling menace beneath the surface, Quaid finds the heart of an insecure man behind a bumbling King.
I hope I’m wrong, but this has the bittersweet feel of a career capper. Forman expands on the themes of his previous works, taking the idea of art vs. politics to its logical extreme. I have to wonder where he could possibly go from here. If it is his swan song, it’s a great way to go out, flaws and all. But even those missteps can be forgiven. All of the film’s problems stem from the fact that Forman was too ambitious in the story he wanted to tell. In my book, that’s never a bad thing.

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