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  Goya's Ghosts

Starring: Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, Randy Quaid

Directed by: Milos Forman

Produced by: Saul Zaentz

Written by: Jean-Claude Carriere, Milos Forman

Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films


     It’s somewhat disheartening to think about the elaborate web of history, culture, and person that Goya’s Ghosts tackles and then to realize how little it actually accomplishes as a film.

     Set during Spain at the time of the French Revolution, the picture is a work of fiction, grounded in history due to the presence of famous painter Francisco de Goya (played here by Stellan Skarsgård). The narrative involves the corrupt Spanish Catholic Church’s trial of young Inés (Natalie Portman), the figure of an illusive Goya painting, for supposedly harboring secret Jewish Faith. The Church convicts her of this because she was witnessed refusing to eat pork at a public party due to dislike of the taste.

     After hours of torture, Inés admits to having Jewish sympathies and, at this admission, the Church commits to keeping her imprisoned. Inés’ wealthy father asks that Goya, who painted portraits of Inés’ entire family, persuade Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), a key figure in the Church who was also painted by Goya, to have dinner with him. Lorenzo accepts the invitation, and explains to Inés’ father that his daughter admitted to her crime. Had she not committed it, God would’ve given her the power to endure the torture that was used to get her to talk – he claims.

     Inés’ father decides to test Lorenzo: he and his servants torture Lorenzo into admitting that he is a monkey. In order to protect the secrecy of this ludicrous confession, Lorenzo commits to try to get Inés out of imprisonment to please her father. His attempts prove futile. Damaging, too, when he uses the opportunity to sexually take advantage of Inés in her frail and confused state. Matters complicate even further when Napoleon and his forces take Madrid, forcing Lorenzo to denounce the Church in order to avoid politically-motivated execution.

     As its plot description reflects, Goya’s Ghosts is a complicated work. Forman’s deft hand is definitely present here; the picture seamlessly balances its variety of passages, from those featuring Goya’s artwork to those involving Inés’ life to those concerning the political turmoil created by the French Revolution. In terms of general technical skill, Goya’s Ghosts is very much a stunning cinematic accomplishment.

     But to discuss Goya’s Ghosts on a purely external level ignores the central problem of the film: tonally, its emotional content is handled as if part of a melodramatic soap-opera. Nearly all of the performances contribute to a completely overwrought tone. Skarsgård’s work is horridly understated as the focus of a picture, Portman’s loud and intense antics are rendered laughable due to their gawky presence, and Bardem’s turn as Lorenzo seems to exist in an entirely different movie from the one inhabited by his fellow cast-members. There isn’t anything wrong with each actor’s work by itself, but in these roles in this movie, the performances come across as mind-numbingly self-important.

     Still, to deny that Goya’s Ghosts shows shades of mastery in certain arenas would be a grave mistake. Forman is still very much the filmmaker today that he was when he made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest thirty-two years ago; through simple characters, he realizes a rich and detailed story. It’s a shame that Goya’s Ghosts is as overbearing as it is; because of this, it exists as only half of a good movie.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 8.16.2007

Screened on: 8.15.2007 at the Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas in San Diego, CA.


Goya's Ghosts is rated R and runs 113 minutes.

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