The Movie Binge

Goya's Ghosts


Erik Bryan and Karen Wilson attended a sparsely populated Tuesday evening screening of Goya's Ghosts. Following are their thoughts on the experience.

While watching Milos Forman's newest biopic of one of Spain's most celebrated master painters, I couldn't help but get the feeling that historical events like the re-introduction of the Inquisition and the Napoleonic invasion of Spain were being used to thinly veil Forman's political assessment of the current American administration's handling of the Iraq war. Firstly, there's a discussion of the usefulness of torture in obtaining an accurate confession. The context is that of the Inquisition's attempt to rid Spain of heretics, atheists, Jews, etc., but the exact same language has recently been used to address the necessity of gaining information from suspects of terrorism. Later, Napoleon's armies are told that they will be greeted as liberators in Spain, which directly echoes evil overlord Dick Cheney's words on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. It's not that I have a problem with political content being expressed in film, I just don't think it has to be so overt.

Well, as it turns out, according to this article, the screenplay was completed almost a year before the Iraq war began, which certainly gives Forman a few points for prescience. Napoleon himself is reputed to have said that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it, which makes it all the more amusing that Cheney has used these age-old cliches to defend our government's "information gathering" and "liberation" tactics. For whatever else the film is, Forman has certainly proven that he is an apt pupil of history. But does good history a good movie make?

No. The biggest problem, I felt, was that the movie is barely even about Goya, here played by adequately by Stellan Skarsgard. He just happens to be there during some of these important moments in Spanish history. His printwork is discussed gravely among Inquisitors, he's shown painting the Spanish royals (he was their court painter), but he doesn't actually get much screen time. The majority of the film is concerned with a corrupt priest, Lorenzo (played by Javier Bardem with devilishly cool menace) and the suspected heretic, Ines (played a little less than adequately by Natalie Portman), that he "puts to the question", rapes and impregnates, and later commits to an asylum. Once his coerced confession is discovered by Church officials, Lorenzo flees to Paris and becomes a parrot of Enlightenment ideals which the French invaders fought for but rarely lived up to. These fanciful conversions of political and religious ideology while Europe's at war have been the subject of better films (Barry Lyndon comes immediately to mind), ones that weren't ostensibly biopics of hugely influential painters. The film contains all the elements of Goya's work, the political strife, the vulgarity, the flat honesty, but none of the signature style or passion. Goya's best works, taken at face value without any narrative intrusion, are far more affecting than this milquetoast rumination on where Goya's inspirations may have come from. Which is why, after the movie, as several of Goya's paintings were shown underneath the closing credits, I sat glued to my seat.

Sitting in the Angelika lobby before watching Goya's Ghosts, I tried to explain to Erik that while I knew very little about Goya's life or artwork I have a strong bond with Milos Forman. Milos and I have an unspoken understanding, I said. Amadeus was probably my most frequent repeat-viewing movie as a teenager, seeing The Fireman's Ball in grad school was a movie-geek revelation and I even enjoyed some of his more maligned movies like Valmont and Man on the Moon. Unfortunately, I found Goya's Ghosts lacked a cohesiveness and an over-arching, complex point of view which is evident in Forman's other work. The movie's chief problem is its harping on the cliched main narrative theme, HYPOCRISY IS BAD. Uh, duh? With his family victims of Auschwitz and growing up in the tumultuous former Czechoslovakia, you'd think Forman could say something more nuanced about the impetus for social order through totalitarian control and the responsibility of art to stand up for human suffering.

The actors' performances come off as bare sketches of real people, the worst being Natalie Portman's dual roles as Goya's muse Ines and Ines's illegitimate daughter Alicia. While Portman has now conquered playing two generations in one movie (which surely has to the similar acting thrill of playing a part where you're immortalized as an action figure), it seemed as though she thought she had to put half as much charisma into each performance. Plus, the fake choppers the film's teeth wrangler Chris Lyons put her in (a distinct set for each character!) were nightmarish. Despite these amusing distractions, I walked out of the movie realizing I learned less about Goya than one should after sitting through a biopic. Equally as murky after the gorgeous art-filled credits rolled were the identity of Goya's ghosts. Were they the brutalized Spanish he depicted in his gruesome lithographs, yet was not able to actually save from their suffering? Are they the royal families he lovingly captured in massive portraits still hanging in the Prado? In 113 minutes of running time you'd think my friend Milos would be able to provide a more concrete answer.