Milos Foreman’s “Goya’s Ghosts” significantly lowers the bar of the creative biography, a bar that Foreman himself had raised to unprecedented loftiness in “Amadeus.” It’s still the one film whose robe most aspire to touch, even fleetingly, before falling to the knees in abject worship.

Foreman refashioned the great Austrian composer into a charming, farting, lecherous buffoon touched by a divine gift, but in “Goya’s Ghosts,” Spanish court painter Francisco Goya has precious little of that irresistible magnetism. In fact, he’s kinda boring — the type of guy who, at parties, tends to stand to one side with a napkin-wrapped drink, affable but ultimately invisible. Hi Goya, bye Goya.

What happened? Foreman has lost none of his skill in creating rich, beautiful imagery, and the story itself is dense and absorbing. We get to see a lot of Goya’s satirical (often macabre) prints that show another side to the painter, best known for his detailed portraits of royalty and the twin “Maja” studies. All this, and yet “Goya’s Ghosts” remains strangely inert and coldly distant — an amazing piece of rocket machinery that never really gets off the ground.

Goya's Ghosts
Director Milos Forman
Run Time 114 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Oct. 4, 2008

Foreman says in the production notes that the casting of Sweden’s Stellan Skarsgard in the title role had been totally intentional — he had searched for a skilled but obscure actor whose persona wouldn’t interfere with Foreman’s image of Goya. Trouble is, that customized image itself is blurred and ambiguous: Goya surfaces as a frustratingly evasive artist, interested primarily in doing the job right, getting paid and not much else.

In “Amadeus,” Mozart had Salieri to observe and narrate his bad-boy habits that clashed outright with his musical genius, but Foreman provides poor Goya with no such aid. In real-life, Goya had a wife, friends and enemies; he wasn’t always fortunate but he did live to a ripe age (82) and went on working passionately until the end. Here, he spends most of his time painting quietly and alone, depicting scenes of hideous torture, famine and violence (it was, after all, Spain in the 18th century). But he never comments on them or even evaluates what they may mean, and it’s hard to reconcile Foreman’s bland Goya with the artistic conviction that must have led him to work on these images in the first place.

The opening scene shows a group of priests handing each other a vast number of prints by Goya, all showing the “unspeakable horrors” of the period with sardonic, cartoonish flourish. As they shake their heads in disgust, Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) is suddenly questioned about sitting for a portrait by this blasphemous painter. It’s a pivotal moment as Lorenzo pauses and declares that Spain has indeed been overrun by evil, mainly due to the recent leniency of the Inquisition (“only eight burnings in the last five years!”). He, Lorenzo, will rectify the situation by leading a new movement in exposing and persecuting heretics. The discussion is closed, the agenda cleverly shifted from indicting Goya to strengthening the Inquisition, and the priests go to bed. This is partly because Lorenzo and Goya are friends, but mostly because the young priest wants to have his portrait finished. But this little maneuvering at a late-night meeting subsequently seals the fate of hundreds of people, brought in by Lorenzo’s team for torture and incarceration in a hellish dungeon. One of them happens to be Goya’s muse, Ines Bilbatua (Natalie Portman), the beautiful teenage daughter of a wealthy merchant (Jose Luis Gomez). An innocuous incident involving a dish of pork alters Ines’ life forever — she’s called to the Holy Office for what she and her family believes is a mere questioning session, but ends up spends the next 15 years chained naked to a wall.

Goya, in the meantime, just works. He paints the portrait of the Spanish king, Carlos IV (Randy Quaid) and his family. He finishes the portrait of Lorenzo. When that portrait is publicly burned after Lorenzo himself is accused of heresy, he paints that scene. When Napoleon’s armies come roaring into his home city of Madrid to rape, pillage and plunder, he’s there with brush and paper. Through the years, friends ask for his help (Goya has connections to high places) but he always mutters some lame, half-hearted excuse, and goes back to work. It’s only when Ines, finally released and turned into an eczema-covered harridan, comes limping to his door that Goya rouses himself to some kind of action. Not that it does her much good, as he’s clueless when it comes to saving lives, even the life of his “angel,” who had apparently given him the “will and inspiration” to create some of his greatest paintings. Who was this guy?

At least Lorenzo is understandable: he’s an opportunistic sleazebag. Ines is never allowed to be anything more than a victim. And Goya — well, he’s just never there. In the end, it’s the only intriguing thing about him.

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