10 December, 2008

Goya's Ghosts (2006)

Flawed portrait

Milos Forman’s heavily contrived plot begins in Spain, during the time of the Inquisition. The artist Francesco Goya has, because of his grotesque depictions of religious ceremonies and cruel hypocrisy, come to the attention of the Holy Office, the sinister cabal which upholds strict religious morals.

Cleverly, however, the film doesn’t turn into one about artistic persecution. Goya has a friend in the church, Brother Lorenzo, who both defends Goya’s vision, and commissions a portrait from him. In another clever twist, Lorenzo is not portrayed as a liberal reformer, but the opposite. He wants a return to the god-fearing ways of the past, and secures permission to instigate a new wave of religious clampdown.

After Inez Bilbatua (one of Goya’s muses) is arrested by the Holy Office, tortured and forced to make a false confession, her father, Tomas, also a friend of Goya, extracts revenge on Lorenzo, forcing him to make a confession of his own.

Tomas Bilbatua hopes to use the confession for blackmail purposes, so his daughter can be freed. When this fails, and the confession is made known to the church authorities, Lorenzo becomes an exile, and Inez remains a prisoner of the Inquisition. Then comes the news that King Louis of France has been beheaded.

Flash forward 15 years. The ideals of the revolution are now being upheld with the principals of terror, Napoleon’s armies have invaded Spain, and the Inquisition has been dismantled. Goya, now deaf, has observed things from afar. No longer painter to the king, his status has diminished. When Inez turns up at his door, unrecognisable from years in prison, she has a shocking revelation; she conceived a child with Lorenzo.

Conveniently at this point, Lorenzo has reappeared. He had been in France during the intervening years, become a convert to revolutionary ideals, and is back in Spain to try his old religious bosses.

The elaborate plotting is, presumably, a commentary on the vagaries of fate, and the dangers of history repeating. However, all opportunities for irony are missed, as the film applies one sledgehammer blow after another. Unsure of its tone, it opts for straight melodrama when a lighter touch is needed.

Indeed, the film never quite makes up its mind as to whether it’s a historical epic, an ironic examination of religious and political double standards, or a personal drama. This is a pity, as the principal actors all do their best, but are sadly let down by a dull script and increasingly unbelievable plot twists.

Stellan Skarsgård as Goya and Javier Bardem as Lorenzo are particularly good, with able support from Jose Luis Gomez as Tomas Bilbatua, Michael Lonsdale as Father Gregorio, and, in a neat cameo, Randy Quaid as King Carlos.

The big let-down, however, is Natalie Portman in the twin roles of Inez and Alicia. As Inez, she is decidedly uninspiring as a muse, and lacks the radiant sexuality that brings her to the attention of the Inquisition in the first place. During the second half, under heavy make-up, she fares little better, straining too hard for pathos. In the underwritten role of Alicia, she simply descends into caricature.

Despite the routine presentation, all is not lost. The relationship between Goya and Lorenzo is interesting, and a scene where the artist unveils his portrait of the monk is a small triumph of subtle acting and spare, concise writing. Indeed, this contrasts nicely with a later comic scene in which Goya reveals his new portrait of the Queen - not noted for her beauty - to the bemused royal court.

But perhaps the most telling part in the film is a vignette, in which Goya is shown methodically preparing one of his nightmarish plates, which he completes just as Brother Lorenzo arrives for the unveiling, and which neatly shows the proximity this often scandalous artist had to the establishment; and how art serves as both a tool of protest and of record.

Sadly, these touches fail to make up for the uncertainties elsewhere in the film; not least the bizarre demotion of the character of Goya as the story progresses, reducing him to little more than a plot device. Strange.

Awards: Click here for details.

114 mins.

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