Film Reviews

Goya's Ghosts Milos Forman

Rating - 5/10

Spanish painter Francisco Goya was one of the most remarkable figures of his era. A key painter in bridging classical and modern art, Goya’s life and art was a myriad of complex contradictions. On the one hand, here was a man appointed by King Carlos IV in 1799 as royal court painter. A man who procured numerous portrait commissions from members of the Spanish elite throughout his lifetime. On the other hand, Goya’s work was capable of being openly subversive and satirical towards powerful institutions such as the Catholic Church.

Initially beginning his profession via religious artwork, Goya was soon producing works deemed heretical and obscene by the Church for their anti-clerical undertones and nude imagery. A prime example was Goya’s controversial series of etchings known as Los Caprichos. Experimental and nightmarish in their tone, these dark, acidic aquatints were created during his tenure as court painter. Only Goya’s friendship with the Spanish royal court spared him from the late 18th century revival of the Spanish Inquisition.
Rendered deaf after contracting cholera, Goya’s works became increasingly more aesthetically bleak and terrifying. One only needs to contrast Goya’s refined court pieces like The Family of Charles IV (1800) with his later “Black Paintings” such as Saturn Devouring His Son (1819-23) to see Goya’s evolution into a beleaguered and tortured individual. Seemingly any facet of Goya’s turbulent life would make fascinating film material. Therefore, it is incredibly surprising to note that Milos Forman’s 2006 film Goya’s Ghosts features barely any factual elements from the famed Aragonese painter’s life, but rather uses Goya and his times as a vehicle for a flawed metaphorical picture about the misappropriation of power in the 21st century.
Co-scripted by longtime Luis Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, Goya’s Ghosts is the first film from acclaimed Czech director Milos Forman since 1999’s Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. Forman is no stranger to cinematic biographies. With the exception of 1989’s Valmont, virtually of all his last five pictures (Amadeus, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man On The Moon) belong to that cinematic genre. Yet, one would be hard-pressed to classify Goya’s Ghosts as a biopic. After all, there is not much biography in a film treating Francisco Goya more as a historical pursuer than a historical painter.
If anything, this fictionalized historical melodrama is a lushly uneven game of “cat and mouse” between Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) and an ambitious priest Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem). Goya’s Ghosts also stars Natalie Portman as Inés, a woman whom Goya frequently employed as a model in his paintings, including frescos for Catholic Churches. The film begins with a group of clerics, including Brother Lorenzo, meeting to discuss how to deal with Goya and other seditious Enlightenment threats.
Noting Goya’s political allies, Lorenzo rejects calls for Goya to be individually punished. Instead Lorenzo rallies for the widespread re-institution of the fabled Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition’s first target is Inés, who is accused of secretly practicing the forbidden Jewish faith after being spotted refusing pork at a local tavern. Unbeknownst to Brother Lorenzo, Inés is both the daughter of a wealthy Catholic merchant and an individual who simply dislikes the taste of pork. Despite her status as a practicing Catholic, Inés confesses to the Inquisition’s false claim after being “put to the Question.”
In reality, “the Question” is merely a pleasant euphemism for archaic torture. According to Brother Lorenzo, those “put to the Question” would receive strength from God to only tell the truth. So when Inés fails to return from her visit to the Holy Office, her wealthy father Tomas (Jose Luis Gomez) asks Goya to cordially invite Brother Lorenzo to Tomas’ estate to beg for his daughter’s release. Almost immediately, the ensuing dinner morphs into a farcical ruse. Over wine, Lorenzo is “put to the Question” by Inés’ family, who insist that under duress one will confess to anything. After proving Tomas right, Brother Lorenzo is
forced to sign a bogus confession, before absconding to Revolutionary France; where he recants his religious beliefs and returns to Spain fifteen years later as equally a fervent Bonapartist, as he was an Inquisitor.
And that’s just Goya’s Ghosts’ first third. The less said about the latter two-thirds of Goya’s Ghosts the better; as the film descends from an allegorical inquiry into present-day political ethics to a potholed early 19th century paternity melodrama. Featuring scenes of approved torture, opportunistic religious leaders and a foreign army arriving to “liberate” Spain from tyranny, it is clear Forman and Carrière are trying to draw parallels between early 19th century Europe and contemporary post-9/11 politics.
Certainly, there is ample actual historical material to work with here. Not including the plenitude of fictitious relationships, events, characters and coincidental circumstances drawn up by Forman and Carrière in their script. Yet, Forman’s application throughout Goya’s Ghosts is uniformly sloppy. Goya becomes an inactive observer; sketching the events surrounding him, but not really commenting upon them: an ironic stance given Goya’s real-life position as a social critic and commentator through his art.
By the film’s melodramatic turn in its latter stages, much of the topical political commentary developed early on in Goya’s Ghosts is cast adrift. In general, art and its political traits are ignored in Goya’s Ghosts. Aside from an engaging title sequence compiled from Goya’s 1899 etchings, the political meditations infused within Goya’s increasingly visually horrific art are curiously absent, especially in a film concerning a renowned painter. Skarsgard’s aloof and affable Goya becomes a mere apolitical bystander, a figure detached from his own real-life history. The one-dimensional, fictitious “ghosts” of the film’s title are equally disengaged. Their respective purposes to the film’s plot fail to stretch beyond the folly of coincidence.
The remaining elements constitute an assortment of thematic remnants. These subjects, hearty leftovers of Forman’s past works, linger upon topics as diverse as madness, censorship, greed and lust. Yet, none are investigated to their potential. Sparkling atop the muddled residue of uncomfortable performances (Bardem) and undeveloped contemporaneous rhetoric,  there is remarkably a true visual richness: a sophisticated aesthetic customary to Forman’s European-based, English-language historical films like Amadeus.
Shot in sumptuous style by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, Goya’s Ghosts has a masterful visual appeal. Filtered through an assortment of jaundiced yellows, murky shadows and sickly green tropes, Aguirresarobe’s cinematography adds a luxuriant quality to the proceedings. It is the rare element of consistency in an otherwise erratic, unfocused mess.  Lacking reciprocation by either Carrière and Forman’s script or the latter’s direction, Aguirresarobe’s camerawork becomes the film’s greatest asset: treating every image as though it were a Romanticist painting of Goya’s era.
Then again, perhaps it is appropriate in a film about an artist, it is only through the images we see anything befitting of Goya’s reputation.