Movie Review: Goya's Ghosts
By Tom Houseman
July 26, 2007
When Milos Forman was asked why he chose to make a film about Fransisco Goya, one of the most famous Spanish painters in history, in English, Forman replied, "I don't speak Spanish." Perhaps a better solution would have been for Forman not to direct Goya's Ghosts, and to have a Spanish-speaking director helm the project. With the recent boom in Latin American and Spanish directors, surely one of them would have been willing to make this film, and it is unlikely that any of them could have done a worse job than Forman did. Goya's Ghosts is a politically motivated mess of a historical biopic, a Merchant Ivory rip-off without the heart or the intellect, but with a few gruesome scenes that feel like Dangerous Liaisons meets Hostel II.
Forman's film career is littered with outstanding cinematic efforts, ranging from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to Man on the Moon. Goya's Ghosts might be his most ambitious project, but it is also his sloppiest. While many of Forman's films span several decades in their examinations of a man's life (it is always a man), there is always a strong narrative storyline that holds his work together like glue, but any such adhesive is painfully absent here.
Perhaps the problem is that there is too much to fit into one film, although that problem has never hindered Forman's vision before. In telling the story of painter Fransisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgard), Forman has a lot on his plate, and some of seems to spill off. The narrative follows Goya's relationship with a young woman, Ines (Natalie Portman), who serves as his muse. When Ines is arrested by the Inquisition on charges of practicing Judaism, Goya butts heads with the slimy, cruel Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) in an attempt to free her.
The film drags on as we see Ines getting tortured in gruesome detail as she shouts "tell me what the truth is!" Forman apparently meant to take a controversial stand by dealing such hot-button issues as "the Spanish Inquisition was bad." Then, an hour into the film, when it seems like there can't possibly be anything else to say, we jump forward 15 years, as Napoleon takes over France. He charges into Spain, overthrowing the Spanish government and assuming that the French will be greeted as liberators by the poor Spanish. (Warning: there might be vague and terribly subtle political commentary going on in this section that could apply to Bush and Iraq. Bring an aspirin to deal with the headache that will ensue from getting hammered over the head by this message.)
While the sets and costumes should have been able to recreate the atmosphere of Spain during Goya's lifetime, the cinematography does not take advantage of the elaborate artistry. The film is shot in almost exclusive close-ups on the actors, with few landscape shots or even wide shots of the rooms and streets where the film takes place. As a result, the audience is never immersed in the ambience of the film, which exacerbates the problems of the poor character development. Goya is surprisingly underdeveloped; we are given a vague sense of his feelings for Ines — that they transcend the sexual and are purely artistic — but during many scenes of intense drama and conflict, Goya's emotions are vague and unclear. Part of the problem is Skarsgard's mediocre performance. It gives no insight into the mind or the heart of what could be a fascinating character.
The film is made at least bearable by the performances of Javier Bardem and Natalie Portman. Bardem, the only Spanish actor in the cast, plays the most interesting character, Brother Lorenzo. Lorenzo is a twisted, two-faced figure, polite and even charming, although there is always a hint that behind his mask is manipulating every situation, and Bardem never overplays this trait. When Lorenzo is out of the public eye and can let his true colors show, Bardem lets loose with a horrifyingly cruel figure who will sacrifice anyone for his own gain. Portman takes a far less developed character, Ines, and gives a very good performance, creating a sweet, innocent, and emotionally fragile creature where there could have been a shallow and dull one. As Portman continues to prove her impressive acting talent, hopefully better parts than this will follow.
But there is nothing that could save Goya's Ghosts from collapsing under the weight of the mess that it created in trying to tell this powerful and ambitious story. Fueled by political anger and lacking in a strong narrative story or any kind of character development, Goya's Ghosts muddles along, throwing in occasional torture scenes that are less moving than sickening. Without seeing strong relationships develop and characters change at all, there is little in Goya's Ghosts to enjoy, except the thought that Forman has done better, and hopefully will again. Maybe, before his next film, Forman could try to learn Spanish.