Milos Forman’s “Goya’s Ghosts” attempts to make hay of the historical coincidence of the Spanish Inquisition, the rise of Napoleon and the life of Goya, but fails to do them justice. Ambitious script is stranded between entertainment and intellectualism, leaving us with a magnificent folly, thoroughly watchable for its visuals but ultimately hollow. Forman’s imposing track record will provoke offshore interest, but it is hard to see such awkward-to-classify fare generating mainstream attention beyond selected Euro territories. Saul Zaentz’s production has thus far bypassed the fest circuit and has no Yank distrib as yet.
Director’s previous Euro period pieces, “Amadeus” and “Valmont,” were constructed on gold-plated foundations (Peter Shaffer’s play and “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” respectively), but such inspiration is notably absent here.
Early scenes, set in 1792, show members of the Inquisition, including the Inquisitor General (Michael Lonsdale) and Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) leafing uncomfortably though Goya’s famously subversive “Caprichos” etchings. The Inquisitor General is troubled Lorenzo has commissioned a portrait from Goya (Stellan Skarsgard), and Lorenzo, keen to rectify the bad impression, suggests the Inquisition revert to its former severity.
Their first victim is Goya’s model Ines (Natalie Portman), beautiful daughter of wealthy merchant Tomas Bilbatua (Jose Luis Gomez). She is arrested by the Inquisition because she’s been spotted refusing to eat pork.
Ines is put to “The Question,” a euphemism for torture, and ends up confessing. Lorenzo visits the dungeons where Ines is being held, and it is suggested he rapes her — one of several important but implausible plot points on which too much later depends. Tomas invites Lorenzo for a meal at which he seeks to prove that under torture, people will confess anything — the issue at the pic’s moral heart, clumsily handled.
In a wholly implausible scene of almost Pythonesque absurdity, Lorenzo is tortured in Tomas’ dining room and signs a document confessing to being the offspring of monkeys. Given the nature of the Inquisition, it seems unlikely such effrontery would have brought with it no consequences for Tomas and his retinue, as it does in the pic.
Humiliated in public and Goya’s portrait of him burned, Lorenzo becomes a fugitive from Inquisitorial justice. The general intensity is lightened by a mostly unfunny storyline involving Goya’s portrait of the ugly Queen Maria Luisa (Blanca Portillo), wife of King Carlos IV (Randy Quaid).
Pic jumps ahead 15 years to the Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, the abolition of the Inquisition, the implausible transformation of Lorenzo (who returns as an Enlightenment revolutionary) and the release of the physically destroyed Ines from prison, carrying with her a dramatically uninspired secret that dominates the film’s wearying second half.
Pic reps a flawed and somewhat sterile discourse on the dangers of unlimited power, hypocrisy and mistaken identity, in which the characters are at the service of the ideas. The fact the film has no love relationship may be because the social climate as shown doesn’t permit it, but it might have provided some emotional warmth, and a respite from all the Machiavellianism.
Project is permeated by black-and-white, good vs. evil logic from which the characters, especially Bardem’s, struggle to escape. The Spanish thesp, at the pic’s dramatic and emotional core, oozes discomfort in a role that requires him to be both a sinister yet soft-voiced Inquisition tough, and an enlightened liberal. He ends up playing Lorenzo as a straight-up, if occasionally self-questioning, self-seeker who fails to connect with the viewer. Though his face is a wonderfully expressive vehicle, Bardem is hampered here by his English-language delivery, which is often muttered, oddly stressed and sometimes downright incomprehensible.
Though the film’s title seems to promise a biopic, the figure of Goya is marginal; he lacks social context, and the key to his professional survival (apart from his talent) is his detachment from events, as he roams freely between the court and taverns. It was probably wise of Forman and co-scenarist Jean-Claude Carriere to present Goya as man rather than myth, and Skarsgard plays the swaggering, devil-may-care painter, later descending into embittered deafness, with perception and brio. But at least some celebration of, or at least enquiry into, the painter’s extraordinary genius would have benefited the venture.
Portman is a particularly convincing muse for Goya earlier on, then spends much of the later stretch wearing startling, uglifying makeup and doing a good turn as a trembling madwoman. Dependable French thesp Lonsdale suggests a great deal in the few lines he has. Other perfs, as scripted, are monodimensional.
Pic’s strength is its visuals; this period of Spanish history has never been cinematically depicted with such potency. Spanish d.p. Javier Aguirresarobe successfully unveils sumptuous, spacious interiors, dark dungeons, teeming taverns and (briefly) battlefields. The palely illuminated, wordless sequence following Ines’ release as she hopelessly wanders the battle-ravaged streets of Madrid is pure poetry. Goya’s magnificently grotesque depictions of the era receive homage throughout.
Though the pic is in English, background murmur in courts and taverns is, somewhat awkwardly, in Spanish; the occasional gracelessness of the dialogue is not helped by the fact it is rendered in so many different accents. Varhan Bauer’s melodic score is employed discreetly and to maximum effect. Period detail is excellent, while Yvonne Blake’s lovingly attended-to costume design is also worthy of mention.