Goya’s Ghosts, by Miloš Forman

The theme is the great painter Goya, the director is Academy Award winner Miloš Forman (Amadeus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), the stars are Natalie Portman and Javier Bardem, the film was shot on location in Spain. I had read middling reviews, but my expectations were high when I saw it last summer in a Paris theater. It is now available in DVD in the US and this seems like a good time to share my impressions.

Goyas ghosts

Goyas ghosts poster

The setting is 1792 Spain, and the French Revolution is already well under way north of the Pyrenees. To fight the spread of the new subversive ideas, the Spanish Inquisition, now a derelict and toothless institution, realizes that it needs to launch a public relations campaign. In order to restore its image and remind people of the good ole days, it decides to burn at the stake a number of heretics and Marranos, those Jews who, though ostensibly converted to Catholicism, continue to secretly practice Judaism.

Be warned that the vision of the Spanish Inquisition presented here is reminiscent of Mel Brooks’s The History of the World, Part I. There is one major difference, though: in this film the caricature is not funny.

The Inquisition’s efforts are spearheaded by BrotherLorenzo (Javier Bardem) whose portrait is being painted by Goya (Stellan Skarsgård.) Now if you found Mr. Bardem’s character creepy in No Country For Old Men, you have seen nothing. Brother Lorenzo is utterly vile, conniving, depraved, cruel, hypocritical, cowardly, sanctimonious, lecherous.

Goya comes across as a fairly decent man, in a mousy sort of way. He is mildly repelled by Lorenzo, and mildly attracted to young Inés Bilbatua (Natalie Portman) whose portrait he is also painting.

Inés is the daughter of a wealthy family, but she makes a life-altering mistake: she declines to eat pork in the common room of an inn. The film goes to great lengths to emphasize that she is no Marrana. Her dislike of pork has no religious connotation, it is merely a gastro-intestinal issue. If only she had been lactose-intolerant!

But such is Inés’s fate: she is promptly arrested on charges of crypto-Judaism, stripped naked, tortured by the minions of the Inquisition, and raped by Brother Lorenzo. What’s a girl to do? She falls in love with her rapist. But then, just when Lorenzo might do something for her to further their sado-masochistic relationship, he is disgraced by an ill-conceived attempt by her family to free her. He has to flee Spain and exit the story.

Fifteen years pass, and suddenly the French armies appear to install Bonaparte’s brother Joseph onto the Spanish throne in lieu of the Bourbon King Carlos IV (an excellent Randy Quaid, the sole bright spot in the film.) And who is the French commissar in charge of the operation? You guessed it: none other than our old friend Lorenzo, now defrocked, married and converted to the Revolution’s ideals of liberty and equality. Never mind that those ideals were not a hot commodity at all under Bonaparte’s reign. The film never lets inconvenient facts stand in the way of a bad story.

The French troops free the prisoners languishing in the dungeons of the Inquisition, including poor Inés, now prematurely senile. So are the French the good guys, the promoters of liberty, or the bad guys, the foreign invaders? The film obviously tries very hard to make a point. Fine, but the problem is that we don’t quite grasp what that point is. Two screenwriters, Mr. Forman himself and Frenchman Jean-Claude Carrière, are credited and, judging by the result, their collaboration didn’t go smoothly. At times I caught myself missing the ideological clarity of The Scarlet Pimpernel. I will nonetheless risk a guess as to the message: French Revolution = Napoleonic regime = Spanish Inquisition = Catholicism = bad. No guarantees, though.

Before long English troops also show up and proceed to defeat the French, thus providing some action scenes. By now it has become clear that the French, whatever they stand for, are the bad guys. This is the time Inés chooses to disclose the existence of her daughter by Lorenzo, Alicia (also played by Natalie Portman.) Alicia, we are told, is a tigress: she eloped from her convent school to become a prostitute. Lorenzo thinks of a way to rid himself of this  offspring, and of Inés herself, who is still, after all these years, consumed with love and devotion for him. What can I say? Women…

Goyas Ghosts US

Goyas Ghosts US

What does this have to do with Goya? Well, once in a while the screenplay yanks him from his easel to send him on some errand or other on behalf of the protagonists. He is the plot’s jack-of-all-trades, and Stellan Skarsgård gives such a shadowy performance (maybe the title should have been Goya’s Ghost) that the character never stands a chance. Apparently he got himself half-erased from the film’s European poster (above) and disappeared completely from the US DVD cover (right.) No spoilers here, but I will reveal this much: you get to see some of the real Goya’s etchings with the credits.

This film fails at every possible level, cinematic, artistic and historical. What I found deeply disturbing was the depiction of women. Inés is a mass of jelly, in thrall to the man who raped her. Their daughter Alicia manifests her “strength” by becoming a prostitute. Apparently it never occurred to the makers of this film that prostitution is most often a position of total subservience.

Still more offensive was to drag an artist of Goya’s caliber into this mess.

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