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