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September 2007 SITE MAP   SEARCH

Goya's Ghosts
cast: Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, Randy Quaid and Michael Lonsdale

director: Milos Forman

109 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
EIV DVD Region 2 retail
[released 10 September]

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
SPOILER ALERT!
You can keep your Robert Altman; I'll take the Milos Forman boxset. Both directors made films for ensemble casts, though with Altman one was suspicious. The aim with Altman appeared, in his early work, to be primarily to create or recreate a community while in the latter work it appeared to be more inclined to play up to his reputation as a director every actor wanted to work with by trying to wedge every actor into his films. Forman never kept Altman's pace, nor was he as successful in his output but he probably has as many good films to show for it. Forman is more of a mystery. It is hard to determine what draws him to a project, but, great or reasonable as the end product turns out to be, they rarely fail to entertain.

Hair, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Ragtime were the first three Forman films that I saw and that's a sure-fire hat trick. Amadeus was also impressive; though by The People vs Larry Flynt the grand entertainer was seemingly tiring and had slipped into unofficial semi-retirement mode. One questioned whether Forman was really that interested in the story of Flynt and his coterie. It was a time, after all, in which hot directors of a decade before were getting pushed aside for the new blood of Tarantino and Fincher. Films were costlier and took longer to make, one false step and it was a genuine struggle back into the business. Goya's Ghosts takes Forman back to the 18th century for a faintly ludicrous fantasy about the court painter Francisco Goya. It can't be counted a masterpiece, not by any standard, though at least Forman would appear to be having a heck of a time.

The Inquisition has been put on hold, though, as Columbia might warble, not for very much longer. Goya's prints depicting images of a sabat or devils in every workaday employ may be a profitable sideline for the artist but the itchy-fingered Inquisitor General and his fidgety sadists frown upon them. Archbishop Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) might critically jump in with them if it wasn't for the fact that Goya (Stellen Skarsgard) was the court painter and had begun a commission of a self-portrait for him too. Like all court painters Goya is low on the rungs and is as financially susceptible to the whims of others as any portraitist of the day. Goya may not be inferior to the court midgets as was Velazquez 40 years before but he is still vulnerable to non-payment by his wealthy commissioners.

The reales come in dribs and drabs and there are no expectations of part payment in advance. He has a muse in Inez (Natalie Portman), the daughter of a wealthy merchant, Tomas Bilbatua (Jose Luis Gomez). She turns her nose up at pork in public and Inquisition spies label her a heretic. Though she rejected the pork on taste the marker assumed for her crimes against the church are that of a practitioner of Judaism. She is put to torture and confesses. Bilbatua wrangles an invite to Lorenzo through Goya. Lorenzo refuses to interfere with the processes of the Inquisition to release the girl and neither would he want to see her released as when visiting her, the vulnerable creature naked and in chains, he sated himself on her.

He adds insult to injury by claiming that his faith would have protected him from the agonies of being put to the question, to which the infuriated Bilbatua, family and their loyal servants, against the protestations of Goya, set upon Lorenzo visiting the identical torture on him. He signs a document confessing himself a monkey in much less time than the poor girl had to sign her own self-condemning paper. Blackmailed by the document he tries and fails to influence the holy office in the freeing of the girl and, resultantly, ever the coward; flees the country before his embarrassment his revealed.

Sixteen years later, the French are invading. King Carlos IV (Randy Quaid) is ousted and Napoleon's brother Joseph is appointed the new ruler of Spain. Lorenzo returns, having found for himself a role in revolutionary France. He takes revenge on the Church, imprisoning the Inquisitor General (Michael Lonsdale). The soldiers ransack and kill, rape nuns and club innocents to the ground. The decision to free the imprisoned is no more than an act of contrariness. The free should be imprisoned; the imprisoned should be free. Chaos reigns and logic has no place in the bloody turmoil. Inez is still alive, though in a terrible, mentally and physically distressed state. Her family are among the freshly slain and she turns to Goya to assist her in tracing the whereabouts of a child she bore while incarcerated. Goya is not to know that the child belongs to the only man she had sex with, Lorenzo.

In assisting Inez he finds Lorenzo, and the years have romanticised the memory of his abuse in the addled brain of the woman, overjoyed to find the father again. Keen to preserve the happy family he has founded since leaving Spain, Lorenzo removes Inez to an asylum. Her mental condition worsens. The daughter is still Lorenzo's blood relative and he and Goya make separate investigations into her current place only to discover that she is a prostitute named Alicia (also Portman). Appalled by her occupation, Lorenzo wants her to emigrate to America. When she refuses he sends in the soldiers to round up all the whores who will be exiled to the New World. During the raid, a baby belonging to one of the prostitutes is left behind and is claimed by the half-daft Inez as her own original child. The Portuguese join Spain in driving out the French and Lorenzo is left behind to his fate.

Production values are high and the momentum is good, the story enhanced by the details. The painter prices his work by content: 2,000 reales per hand or two hands for 3,000 reales. In the case of Lorenzo, he saves money by folding his arms and hiding his hands in his sleeves. There is plenty to fault the film on. The story is a fantasy populated by a dotting of real characters, a practice once acceptable common play in cinema but newly dishonest in 2007. Coincidence is too absurdly commonplace in the story and puts the film on a level with the sitcom. Portman is cast in the roles of mother and daughter and the suspicion of the reason for this is that having afforded the actress and the story necessitating her uglying up for the latter half of the film, the producers wanted to keep the pretty version of the actress in there somehow.

Skarsgard seems initially to be the wrong choice for Goya, but ever the sterling actor, despite the character's faults, his ultimate sense of justice and personable qualities make of him appealing. The director cannot resist the classic image of Goya working at night in a hat with a wide brim encircled with molten candles... an image stolen from the Spanish film Goya In Bordeaux. Irritatingly, the spoken language is English but in crowd scenes the extras prattle in simple Spanish. This is pointless and, one suspects, much less an affectation of the director and more a decision made by the fact that they were shooting in Spain with predominantly Spanish extras. It is, nonetheless, annoying. When the Duke of Wellington shows up it is a Spanish actor who bears no resemblance to Wellington.

The film has many great touches. When Inez is initially questioned on her abstention from pork she is worried but because she has done no wrong feels no peril. The conversation is polite as the holy men ask her if she would agree to be put to the test on her claims and she smilingly agrees, feeling that this will provide the truth that will protect her. The film cuts immediately to the naked girl, as she is tortured. It's a shock cut, the most appalling abuse of trust by those in authority. In addition to this, in a close-up, her wrists tied, the ropes hauling her off the ground, her arms behind her back, the shoulder looks fit to dislocate and it is suspected that someone double-jointed may have body-doubled the detail.

The film has begun slowly but this is the point at which the tale kicks into life and the torture of the priest by the family shortly after contains more surprising shifts. The father's lead is at first questioned and feared but then slips into hysteria of support for him in his actions. The household swoops in on Lorenzo, adoring of master and daughter, keen to prove his point. The film still has a cast of top-notch name actors, but as many of them are European they might not be that recognisable here. Several veterans of the 1970s' Spanish horror film (Simon Andreu, Jack Taylor and Victor Israel) have small roles and Unax Ugalde (who recently appeared in Alatriste with Bardem) plays one of the brothers. The aforementioned Michael Lonsdale is worrying old. The actor, a favourite from films like Day Of The Jackal, is bloated, his double chin flabby and horrible, like a huge sack of pus.

Blanca Portillo is Queen Isabella Luisa, bantering playfully with her artist, she is later appalled when his portrait of her on an empirically fat horse fails to reduce her true ugliness. Back in 1989 I read that David Calder had been diagnosed with a debilitating disease that put only ten years on his life and it is good to see him here proving once again what shit the papers write. Comparing the film to Alatriste, the recent homegrown box office hit might be slightly more accurate but is still a tale of fiction. Whereas Alatriste is an expensive, characterless exercise, at least Goya's Ghosts is playful, rude, unfair and fun, just don't expect too much of it.
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