Goya's Ghosts (Spain, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Though it has been said that "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition," the reality of the matter was that for centuries, life in Spain was lived on the edge of a knife, where one wrong word or action could bring an innocent victim before an ecclesiastical court. Goya's Ghosts, the latest film from respected director Milos Forman, looks at the waning years of the Inquisition and its interaction with painter Francisco Goya and two fictional characters. The movie is uneven in the extreme, to the extent that it feels like two imperfectly wed pictures. The first, while not extraordinary, at least contains some interesting ideas. The second borders on embarrassing: an overblown melodrama complete with coincidence building upon coincidence and plot threads that are left unresolved.

It's hard to believe that this is the product of the filmmaker whose career apexes included One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus. As in the latter film, Goya's Ghosts takes Forman into costume drama territory and allows him to explore the life and work of an artist. However, despite the title, this story isn't really about Goya. He's an observer. We are provided with a couple of lively scenes depicting him at work, but they're secondary to what's going on. Goya is never developed as a character and we never see his most famous works (the two Maja paintings) or the controversy surrounding them. He's here so Forman can have an historical figure interact with two make believe creations. This wouldn't be bad if either of them was more fully developed than Goya. Alas, they're just as flat and ultimately uninteresting.

The film opens in the late 1780s. The Brothers of the Inquisition, concerned that they have been too lenient on heretics in recent years (not enough burnings), have allowed one of their number, Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), to turn up the heat. He does so with relish. Caught in his web is young Ines Bilbatua (Natalie Portman), who is seen refusing pork at dinner in a tavern. She is brought in and tortured on suspicion of practicing Jewish rites. Goya (Stellan Skarsgård) becomes involved because he knows and has painted both Lorenzo and Ines. Ines' father asks him to mediate, but a cordial dinner turns into something darker that will change Lorenzo and Ines' futures.

For roughly its first hour, Goya's Ghosts manages to hold the viewer's attention. The Inquisition process and how it entraps Ines is interesting and there's an undeniable fascination associated with the "solution" arrived at by Ines' father (although it seems more than a trifle unrealistic). The torture scenes are harrowing without making the viewer feel voyeuristic or complicit. And there are hints of development in Lorenzo's character as circumstances shake his beliefs. Then comes the halfway point and the dreaded "15 years later" caption. After that, Goya's Ghosts falls apart completely.

This may well go down as the worst performance Bardem has ever given. He is largely unconvincing as his acting veers wildly from wooden to overwrought. Natalie Portman, despite playing two roles, isn't much better. She's a little more convincing as a woman with bad teeth in her mid-thirties than as a 14-year old prostitute. Her best scenes, sadly, are those when she's being tortured. Stellan Skarsgård doesn't have a lot to do beyond providing a sounding board for other characters (ironic, because Goya is deaf) and work on the occasional painting. Then there's the strange case of Randy Quaid (of all people) playing King Carlos IV. Perhaps what's more surprising than Quaid's participation is that he isn't appreciably worse than he co-stars. (He really doesn't do much other than wear a wig and play the violin badly.)

The film isn't quite bad enough that it can be appreciated on that level. The costumes and set design are top notch and there are occasional scenes that hit the mark, although not nearly enough of them to justify the price of admission. On the whole, Goya's Ghosts feels like a missed opportunity. It's hard to figure out how a film with so much going for it (Forman, Bardem, Portman, Skarsgård, and producer Saul Zaentz) could fail so miserably. But it proves that an idea isn't enough - there has to be a good script to go along with it, and that's one thing Goya's Ghosts does not have in its favor. There's little doubt this movie's theatrical apparition will be fleeting as it passes on to its next life in video stores.

Goya's Ghosts (Spain, 2006)

Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 2007-07-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1