Directed by Milos Forman. Starring Javier Bardem, Stellan Skarsgård, Natalie Portman, Randy Quaid, Blanca Portillo, Michael Lonsdale, José Luis Gómez, Mabel Rivera. (2006, R, 114 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 10, 2007
The work of the great Spanish painter and engraver Francisco Goya (1746-1828) stands forever as a marker between the worlds of the old masters and the new modernism. As a court painter to the royals, Goya managed, somehow, to imbue his portraits of the nobles with touches of subversive commentary. His royal connections kept him afloat both monetarily and politically, as there were many who regarded much of his work – especially his hallucinatory engravings which depicted a wide range of horrors – as blasphemous. Goya was a witness to his turbulent times, which were colored by various European revolutions and warfare, as well as the waning decades of the Spanish Inquisition. In his voluble imagery we can glimpse the hypocrisies of the clergy and the nobility, the deficiencies of the Enlightenment, and the fatal destiny of the citizenry to become defenseless pawns in the power struggles of their leaders. These are the ghosts referred to in the film's title. Goya's Ghosts is not a biopic of the artist, nor is it a study of the Inquisition or a historical epic, aspects that many viewers have condemned the film for failing to achieve. The film instead uses Goya and historical events to paint a portrait of our collective barbarism, and how our methods may change over time but our impulses remain the same. The Spanish inquisitors may have used the rack, the CIA water-boarding: It's something to which Forman, a refugee to the U.S. from communist Czechoslovakia, may be especially sensitive. Forman's film (co-written with frequent Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière) also demonstrates a strong anticlerical stance that reveals the clergy to be hypocrites and fornicators (one might suspect that Buñuel is somewhere smiling). Bardem plays Brother Lorenzo, a priest whose storyline is followed throughout the film. He bears the conflicting impulses to celebrate and despoil Goya's artistry and the women who pose as his models. Skarsgård is solid as Goya, and his physical resemblance to the artist is uncanny (and can be seen in the self-portrait that provides the film's final image in a voluminous gallery of Goya's artwork that accompanies the closing credits and provides an art-history lesson in itself). Portman plays two roles: first, as the young woman imprisoned by the inquisitors (or maybe just Brother Lorenzo) for having refused pork in a restaurant (a sure sign of Jewish heritage) and then later in the film as her daughter. Portman's presence comes with many melodramatic flourishes that particularly hobble the film's third act. Goya's Ghosts also suffers from way too many coincidences, historical and otherwise, that frequently interrupt the narrative flow with a momentous death or arrival of the military. Yet for all its flaws, Goya's Ghosts also provides numerous moments of sumptuously cinematic storytelling (as in the sequence in which we witness the complete process of metal engraving). Though not nearly as perfect as Amadeus and The People vs. Larry Flynt (to cite two of Forman's previous semibiographical efforts), Goya's Ghosts uses the lives of artists and historical figures to show us the best and the worst of our human impulses.