Beyond breathtaking, "Goya in Bordeaux" brings to life the demons and dark imagery raging inside the head of brooding painter Francisco de Goya y Lucientes during his final years, self-exiled in France.

Beyond breathtaking, “Goya in Bordeaux” brings to life the demons and dark imagery raging inside the head of brooding painter Francisco de Goya y Lucientes during his final years, self-exiled in France. Highbrow auds, prepped to expect a complex dance of light, space and movement in place of a more traditional character-driven biopic, will reward Spanish director Carlos Saura and Italian d.p. Vittorio Storaro with their first international non-music-and-dance success after collaborations on “Flamenco,” “Taxi” and “Tango.” The film received a nod for best artistic contribution at Montreal.

On the eve of his death in 1828 at 82, Goya (Francisco Rabal) lies confused and ill in the house he shares with the last of his many lovers, Leocadia (Eulalia Ramon), and their young daughter, Rosario (Dafne Fernandez). He’s helpless to control the visions that come to him unbidden. In the first of many visually distinctive altered states that are the backbone of the story, the walls of his simple room pulse with blue light as he wanders into a sterile corridor and imagines tableaux from his work and the mysterious, black-shrouded Cayetana (Maribel Verdu) before abruptly waking up in the middle of a nighttime street.

The painter’s life and tumultuous times are then told in flashback, as the forgetful Goya spins tales to Rosario from a life that has taken in the decline of Spain, four monarchies, occupied government and a bloody war of independence. The tolerant Rosario has obviously heard them all before.

Goya tells of the stress faced by his younger self (Jose Coronado) as successful court painter to King Charles and the royal family. It was during one of the court’s social events, which were distasteful but necessary to his success, that he first glimpsed Cayetana, the Duchess of Alba, who became his subject, friend and lover, inspiring the canvases “La maja vestida” and “Desnuda.” Eventually undone by the tangled politics of the court, Goya left for France in 1824 and, with the exception of a brief trip to Madrid, lived there until his death.

At 46, the Aragonese painter and avowed liberal went deaf, and the combination of physical distress and the horrors of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain gave his late work a dark urgency. “Can’t you paint something happy?” chides the maternal and tolerant Leocadia when the so-called Black Paintings he spewed directly on the walls of a remote farmhouse scare their child.

Saura nurtured this project throughout his career, and the long gestation process is apparent in the care with which Goya’s works and the myths surrounding his life are incorporated into the story, and in the seamless presentation of often complex visuals. Working almost entirely on sets in Rome’s Cinecitta Studios, Storaro has utilized a broad canvas of conventional technologies supplemented with newer materials to create the burnished world of dark and light — heavy with deep blacks and warm ochers — inside the painter’s head. Stamped plastic, sliding panels and subtle digital effects are all employed.

Many of the painter’s most notable works appear in forms both literal and evocative. The young Goya wanders a modern hallway hung with the traditional portraiture he cranked out while at court, while the ceiling fresco created to commemorate the legend of San Antonio is seen to fall as a diaphanous shroud on the characters within it.

Virtuoso climax of the film is the intricate, faithful staging, in moving tableaux, of all 17 engravings from the 1810 work “Disasters of War” by Catalan-based “action-theater” group La Fura dels Baus.

Saura has not entirely supplanted his interest in music and dance. Composer Roque Banos’ richly textured score incorporates themes of Spanish popular music and the kind of traditional classical music of the day into an evocative whole. Action is punctuated with brief, but skillfully staged dance sequences, including an early fandango in Charles’ court, a seguidilla in the street and a bartender’s impromptu flamenco performance. Carlos Faruolo’s sound work also makes a key contribution, particularly in realizing the cacophony in the painter’s head.

In service to a larger technical vision that often overwhelms nuance, perfs are strong. When not emphasizing his mental decline, Rabal’s scenes with the young Fernandez are as mischievous as pic gets. The movie’s carnal high point belongs to the voluptuous Verdu and Coronado, the latter summoning a blend of Beethoven and mid-life Laurence Olivier in his warm haughtiness. As Verdu’s Cayetana poses for the young Goya, their artist-subject relationship melts into leisurely yet charged sex play.

When he first sees Diego Velazquez’s “Las Meninas,” Goya marvels that the canvas is “outside time, space and place, beyond all physical reality, another dimension.” So, too, is Saura’s feverish, elegant movie.

Goya in Bordeaux

Spanish - Italian

Production

A Lolafilms release (in Spain) of a Lolafilms (Spain)/Italian Intl. Films (Italy) production, in association with RAI-TV, with participation of Via Digital and TVE. (International sales: Lolafilms U.K., London.) Produced by Andres Vicente Gomez. Co-producer, Fulvio Lucisano. Directed, written by Carlos Saura.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Vittorio Storaro; editor, Julia Juaniz; music, Roque Banos; art director, Pierre-Louis Thevenet; costume designer, Pedro Moreno; sound (Dolby Digital), Carlos Faruolo; assistant director, Carlos Saura Medrano. Reviewed at World Film Festival, Montreal (competing), Sept. 4, 1999. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Masters.) Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Goya - Francisco Rabal Goya as a Young Man - Jose Coronado Rosario - Dafne Fernandez Duchess of Alba - Maribel Verdu Leocadia - Eulalia Ramon Moratin - Joaquin Climent Pepita Tudo - Cristina Espinosa Godoy - Jose Maria Pou Priest/San Antonio - Saturnino Garcia Juan Valdes - Carlos Hipolito Disasters of War Ensemble - La Fura dels Baus

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