This review was written for the theatrical release of "Goya's Ghosts."
"Goya's Ghosts" is a decidedly odd film coming from such a prestigious group of filmmakers that includes writer-director Milos Forman, renowned screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and producer Saul Zaentz. Its central figure is the great Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco de Goya, in many ways the world's first modern artist. Yet the film displays only passing interest in his art. Its focus instead is on Spain during the horrific period of the Inquisition and Napoleon's conquest, a subject that has its modern-day parallels, but the film never chooses to make them. Indeed, the story these talented filmmakers tell is a sad, even pathetic tale about tawdry events and cowardly individuals.
The film opened in Europe in November to poor results. Foreign boxoffice stands at $5.9 million, with $2.2 million coming from Spain. "Ghosts" makes its domestic debut Friday, July 20 in select markets before an expansion Aug. 3. While lavishly produced with exquisite period details and battle scenes, the film seems destined to attract a mostly art house crowd.
Goya (1746-1828) is viewed here -- no doubt with some justification -- as being apolitical, a man interested in his art but not caring who he paints, be it a haughty royal or a Grand Inquisitor. Yet the journalistic and subversive side to his art, especially in his "Caprichos" etchings or painting about Napoleon's invasion of a conservative, priest-ridden Spain, make one wonder if he wasn't a very good actor to maintain such cordial relations with royals and invaders alike while depicting the true horrors of his society.
Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) provides the film's viewpoint since he moves easily between the Royal Palace and streets and taverns of Madrid. The story he bears witness to concerns a young and beautiful daughter (Natalie Portman) of a wealthy Christian merchant, who also is his model. When she is unjustly fingered by the Inquisition for hiding "Jewish practices," she is tortured into a confession that causes the Church to lock her up in a filthy prison to rot.
Her father (Jose Luis Gomez) appeals to Goya to intervene with Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), a fanatical priest behind the revival of the odious Inquisition. Goya arranges a dinner and the father a sizable bribe, but all the priest manages to do is impregnate the daughter. To demonstrate how easily one can produce "confessions," the father subjects Lorenzo to the same torture as his daughter endured, forcing him to admit to being a monkey. It's difficult to believe, though, that the family would suffer no repercussions for such an outrageous act.
Humiliated and ostracized from the Church, Lorenzo flees Spain only to return 15 years later with Napoleon's army and a portfolio for revenge against the Grand Inquisitor (Michael Lonsdale). He does manage to free his now deranged lover but thoughtlessly consigns her to an asylum. When he finally locates his daughter (Portman in an uncomfortable dual role), he discovers that she has turned to prostitution. His reaction is to arrest and send her to America, where she can't bother him. Only the British invade Spain and the tables turn again.
There is truly no one to like in this film. The ex-priest is a human rights abuser of the first order. Goya is too wishy-washy to stand for anything. One young girl goes insane, while her daughter becomes an unrepentant whore. Royals are out of touch with a world in which priests and soldiers inflict rape, barbarity and death on a terrified populace. The only bright spot is Randy Quaid in a humorous turn as a playful (if not terribly American) King Carlos.
Scenes might suggest some of Goya's more horrific images, but for the most part his art is ignored. His personal life is stripped from him so he may wander through Madrid as our eyes and ears (at least until he become deaf). He always manages to be in the room when great historical news arrives -- the execution of the French king or the landing of British forces in Spain.
The script contains one jarring leap in time, an awkward shift in the narration and much telescoping of events, like the British invasion that seemingly takes place a few weeks after Napoleon's arrival when in fact the French stayed for six years.
In general, the filmmakers failed to make several basic decisions before shooting: What are they trying to say and to whom are they saying it? The good vs. evil is painted too black and white to reveal much about the human character. Indeed, a modern sensibility afflicts much of the screenplay, with characters expressing thoughts and opinions for our ears rather than acting as people of that era.
Below-the-line credits are terrific, which only increases an overwhelming sense of disappointment with the film's failed ambitions.
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Xuxa presents a Saul Zaentz production
Director: Milos Forman
Screenwriters: Milos Forman, Jean-Claude Carriere
Producer: Saul Zaentz
Executive producer: Paul Zaentz
Director of photography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Production designer: Patrizia Von Brandenstein
Music: Varhan Bauer
Co-producers: Mark Albela, Denise O'Dell
Costume designer: Yvonne Blake
Editor: Adam Boome
Brother Lorenzo: Javier Bardem
Ines/Alicia: Natalie Portman
Goya: Stellan Skarsgard
King Carlos: Randy Quaid
Grand Inquisitor: Michael Lonsdale
Bilbatua: Jose Luis Gomez
Mabel Isabel Bilbatua: Mabel Rivera
Running time -- 113 minutes
MPAA rating: R