Goya's Ghosts (2006) / Drama

MPAA Rated: R for violence, disturbing images, some sexual content, and nudity
Running time: 114 min.

Cast: Stellan Skarsgard, Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, Randy Quaid, Blanca Portillo, Michael Lonsdale, Jose Luis Gomez, Mabel Rivera
Director: Milos Forman
Screenplay: Milos Forman, Jean-Claude Carriere

Review published May 18, 2007

Goya's Ghosts starts its first half in Spain in the year 1792, amid the tension of the French Revolution, where Francisco Goya (Skarsgard, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest), one of the country's most famous of painters, has drawn the suspicious eye of the Spanish Inquisitors, who see some of his work as possible representations of evil. Brother Lorenzo (Bardem, The Sea Inside) is among Goya's allies in the Inquisition clergy, coming to his defense, but naively urges them to step up their methods on cracking down on those they deem to be against their faith. One of Goya's latest subjects is a young woman named Ines (Portman, Paris Je'taime), the daughter of a wealthy man named Tomas Bilbatua (Gomez, The 7th Day), and she is one of the subjects rounded up for to rigorous torture sessions for her perceived heresy.

The second half of the film is set 15 years later, as Napoleon's forces have invaded Spain, and we see how the characters have progressed in their lives. Goya is deaf, Brother Lorenzo wealthy, the Inquisitors tried for their acts, and Inez deliriously rambling about a daughter that was taken away shortly after giving birth. Goya feels great pity for the woman, urging Lorenzo to assist in any way possible to find the woman's daughter. However, the origin and whereabouts of the young girl are something Lorenzo wishes to protect from public knowledge, not only for himself, but also for Ines, whom he feels is too mentally unstable to handle a reunion at this time.

Directed by Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus), his first effort since 1999's Man on the Moon, Goya's Ghosts may not rank among his finest works, but it does have its share of strong moments, enough to recommend the film as a thoughtful and sometimes frightening commentary on the nature of religious persecution, and the lives destroyed in the wake of their power. It helps that the film is beautifully shot and sumptuously developed, and with surprisingly sympathetic characterizations, Forman overcomes his curious casting decisions to deliver one of the more interesting historical dramas of the year.

Although Francisco Goya is the central character of this story by Forman and co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (Birth, The Unbearable Lightness of Being), the film isn't really about him, merely using him as a historical and thematic vessel for which to spotlight the Inquisition, Revolution, and events that transpired during his time. Like the works of Voltaire, a contemporary of the times the film is set, and to whom the film pays constant homage, the tone is one of a comedy of madness, so grim and uncanny at times that it transcends misery to the point where one can only view some of the events as dastardly ironic and bleakly humorous. Both Voltaire and Goya would spend much of their careers on works showcasing the ills of prisons and asylums, calling for reforms through their unsavory exposure, which Forman's film in turn spends a great deal of time exploring and condemning.

It's hard to look at the performances of Bardem, Skarsgaard, Quaid (The Ice Harvest, Brokeback Mountain), and, especially in the last half, Portman (whose first on-screen nude scenes have generated some buzz, though I should warn the perverts that they come during moments of nearly unwatchable torture), and not think Forman is treading a fine line between misery and mirth, devilishly seeing the folly of the the beliefs of those in power at the time, while also not afraid to show the seriousness, and deadliness, of their actions. It's tone is akin to Voltaire's "Candide" using historical figures, complete with the writer's underlying themes repudiating the right to power of Christianity, perfectly in keeping with the age of Enlightenment that Goya himself would represent.

Will everyone who views Goya's Ghosts understand the film as a fictional exploration of what would motivate Goya to spend a great deal of his time in works of art that showcase the madness of the times in the area of corrections, justice, and the treatment of those with mental and physical illness? Probably not, and even if people are in tune with it, given that it is a Forman film, they may be expecting more out of him than this film ultimately delivers. 

However, for those familiar with the great painter's works, as well as the prevailing spirit of the Era of Enlightenment and the style of the other great artists of various mediums who used their craft to comment on the blights of the world around them, Goya's Ghosts speaks on a level that transcends just the story of two men looking after the welfare of a young, unfortunate woman caught up in the hysteria of power that marked the end of the Spanish Inquisition's stranglehold of power, as well as the outrageous hypocrisy in their manner of governance.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo