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Goya's Ghosts

Goya's Ghosts
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Rated R
Now Showing at: Mariemont Theatre.
Review by: Larry Thomas

While his career has not been as prolific as some of his contemporaries, Milos Forman has managed to win the Best Director Oscar twice…for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, both of which also won Best Picture. He was nominated a third time for The People vs. Larry Flynt. Since that last Oscar nod in 1996, Forman has made only two films: the disappointing Man in the Moon, with Jim Carrey as comedian Andy Kaufmann, and Goya's Ghosts, now in current release.

Although the titular character in Goya's Ghosts is the respected Spanish artist Francisco Goya, the film is not about him. Rather, he is a character who observes the times and records the occurrences in Spain through his art.  

Goya's Ghosts seems to be like two different films. The first hour is a gripping, sinister, often emotional treatise on how absolute power corrupts absolutely…whether in royalty, government, or the church. The tale centers around The Spanish Inquisition and how ordinary citizens were tortured into confessing all manner of lies. The brilliant Spanish actor Javier Bardem plays Brother Lorenzo, one of the inquisitors, as a smooth, but ultimately nefarious priest who carries his own demons inside. Francisco Goya, who is essayed here by the Swedish Stellan Skarsgaard, is painting his portrait. Odd casting, perhaps, but effective, as Skarsgaard has proven himself to be an extremely capable performer. Goya turns out to be the intermediary for an old friend whose daughter is arrested for heresy. Natalie Portman plays the pivotal role, and is quite good, especially for such a young actor with limited experience. The strangest bit of casting is that of Randy Quaid…yes, the Randy Quaid from the National Lampoon Vacation series… as King Carlos of Spain. He’s quite a revelation playing against any type we’ve known him to do before.  

Forman obviously handles period drama well. In addition to Amadeus, he also recreated past eras with extreme care in Valmont and Ragtime. Goya's Ghosts looks sumptuous in its style and design. The excellent music by Varhan Bauer added to the aura.

Then something happens after that first hour. At a particularly dramatic pause in the story, a title card appears announcing “fifteen years later,” where the story attempts to tie together all the pieces of this human puzzle. The political allegory, in which France occupies Spain to stop the Inquisition and put an end to religious abuses, is spread thicker than homemade jam on sourdough bread. The performances descend almost to the level of self-parody. Even the music seems wrong. And it all rushes headlong to a seriously unsatisfying climax.  

The script by Forman and the great French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere…who worked many times with Luis Bunuel…should have been more coherent and focused. It’s as if the film they wanted to make was all in the first hour, yet they felt obliged to fill it out to feature length with something hastily thought out.

But the first hour of Goya's Ghosts, despite depictions of the brutality of the Inquisition, is powerful enough to make it worth seeing… and also worth talking about.


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