Related Articles: Movies, All

Goya’s Ghosts

Stumbling Under Clichés

Czech-born filmmaker Milos Forman has directed some of the most critically acclaimed films of the last forty years, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon. Eight years later, Forman is back with Goya's Ghosts, a period drama about another iconoclast that's sadly undermined by clichéd, soap opera plot turns and unfocused storytelling.

In 1792 Madrid, Spain, Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgård) makes a comfortable living as a court painter to King Carlos IV (Randy Quaid) and Queen María Luisa (Blanca Portillo). When he’s not painting for the king and queen of Spain, Goya takes on commissions from anyone who can afford his services, including Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), an idealistic monk closely associated with the resurgent Inquisition. When officials from the Spanish Inquisition led by Father Gregorio (Michael Lonsdale) suggests that Goya’s anti-clerical sketches pose a heretical danger and must be stopped, Brother Lorenzo helps to steer them away from Goya. Brother Lorenzo, however, becomes fascinated with one of Goya’s models, Inés (Natalie Portman), the daughter of a wealthy merchant, Tomás Bilbatúa (José Luis Gómez).

Inés, however, runs afoul of the Inquisition when spies for the Inquisition spot her refusing pork at a local inn. The spies suspect Inés and, by extension her father, two brothers, Álvaro (Fernando Tielve) and Ángel (Unax Ugalde), and her mother, María Isabel (Mabel Rivera), of being secret Jews, or “Judaizers”, in the parlance of the Inquisition. Called to appear before officials from the Inquisition to defend herself, Inés soon disappears into the Inquisition’s dungeons. Desperate, Tomás seeks first Goya’s aid and, through him, Brother Lorenzo’s help, but Tomás doesn’t count on Lorenzo’s desires for Inés getting the better of him or the Inquisition’s intransigence to admit wrongdoing and free Inés from indefinite detention.

Goya's Ghosts then commits a cardinal sin (sorry, couldn’t resist) of storytelling, breaking the unities of time and place to catch up with the central characters fifteen years later in 1807. Now, the ideological extremism and religious fanaticism of the Spanish Inquisition has been replaced with ideological extremism and secular fanaticism of post-revolutionary Napoleonic France. The French ideals of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity quickly give way to brutality and violence, with a now-deaf Goya witness to the French occupation’s atrocities against the Spanish, Inés’ fate uncertain, and a “surprise” appearance by an exile returning as a conquering hero.

It’s obvious, of course, that Forman and his co-screenwriter, five-time Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière ( The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Milky Way, Belle de jour), want to draw parallels between late eighteenth, early nineteenth century Spain and the United States-led war and occupation of Iraq. For what it’s worth, Forman and Carrière succeed in highlighting those parallels without getting heavy-handed or polemical, but once Goya's Ghosts makes the jump from 1792 to 1807, the price is high. With a flagging momentum and failing credibility, each plot turns become so ridiculous that even a romance novelist would hesitate before including them in their latest work of vacation-ready paperbacks.

Even more questionable and, arguably, more egregious, was the decision to allow Portman to play both Inés and her own daughter and having them share screen time. It’s a gimmicky, clichéd plot device that even well respected directors should employ at their own artistic peril. With a tighter, better-focused script, set during one specific time or expanded into a mini-series, Goya's Ghosts could have joined Forman's oeuvre as something more than a misguided misfire. As it is, the film will be remembered, if at all, for a talented, underused cast and a director whose filmmaking skills seem to have deserted him.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars