Goya's Ghosts

Goya's Ghosts


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

It is difficult to fathom quite what Milos Forman (Amadeus, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) is on about. Is this a fractured biopic of Spain’s greatest painter? Is it an attack on religion, or, to be more precise, the Holy Roman Empire in the 18th century? Is it an ironic reflection upon the transient nature of wealth and privilege? Are there hidden references to rendition and Guantanamo Bay in its depiction of the Inquisition’s methods of obtaining confessions?

One thing’s for certain; it is a mess.

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Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) is an enigmatic figure, who understands patronage and the importance of remaining amenable to clients and sitters, which, in his case, include the royal household. As a result, he comes across as an observer and diplomat at court, whose interest in being paid outweighs any critical judgment of Spain’s social fabric under King Carlos IV (witty performance by Randy Quaid). He appears to have neither a private life, nor an interest in the pleasures of the flesh, always drawing in a notebook, or working in the studio. Skarsgard’s American accent sounds odd, to say the least, and his acting feels uncommitted, almost lazy, offering no insights into the artistic temperament.

When Ines (Natalie Portman), the beautiful daughter of a rich merchant, who has sat for Goya, is picked up by spies of the Church for apparently accepting pork in a tavern and accused of Jewish practices, she is stripped naked by the judicatures of the Inquisition, tortured and left to rot in the dungeons of the prison. Her father seeks advice from the well connected royal painter who invokes another of his sitters, the influential monk Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), whose interest in the girl proves to be more carnal than spiritual.

Part Two of the film is 15 years later when Europe is in turmoil, with Bonaparte in France, his brother placed on the Spanish throne and the English armies moving south. Lorenzo has fled the Church, changed sides and is now an administrator for the colonial power, married with children. Ines, a shuffling mad woman, and other prisoners of the Inquisition are released. Goya, sketching terrible scenes of violence, has gone deaf and is accompanied everywhere by an interpreter of sign language (Wael Al Moubayed).

Ines had a child in prison, which was taken from her and brought up in an orphanage. Goya discovers the girl working as a prostitute and tries to reunite mother and daughter, while Lorenzo makes plans to have her deported to America. There is so much going on, what with the fall of empires and the collapse of papal power, as well as street uprisings, influenced by the French Revolution, that Lorenzo’s domestic inconvenience, Goya’s disability and Ines’s lunatic fantasies are mere footnotes in a world at war.

Forman loses direction and the two halves of the film remain indifferent to each other, with the figure of Goya inhabiting both without influencing either. Bardem is narcissistic to a fault, posing dramatically for the camera at every opportunity, while Portman overacts to a degree that simplifies madness to a stereotype, leaving Ines as empty as a cracked vase.

Reviewed on: 03 May 2007
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Spain's most revered artist observes the Inquisition and European wars and keeps on painting.
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