‘Goya’s Ghosts’ Inconsistent, but Haunting

August 29, 2008

I can’t stop thinking about “Goya’s Ghosts.” It’s strange, inconsistent and imperfect; but it made me gasp in surprise, gape in disbelief, and throw up my hands in frustration. If you like that in a movie, as I do, you should see this film, the 2006 offering from Oscar-winning writerdirector Miloš Forman.

If I’ve sold you already, stop reading.

“Goya’s” strengths lie in its surprises. However, a five-sentence review looks funny on the page, so I’ll discuss a few of its twists.

The first is in the casting. Goya himself is not played by Javier Bardem, as I’d wrongly assumed given their shared nationality and Bardem’s dominance of the movie poster, but by the wonderful Stellan  Skarsgård. He’s one of many non-Spaniards in the international cast, and the actors generally use their native accents rather than affecting a Spanish or vaguely English accent, as in many historical films.

At first, this is refreshing. Then it becomes disorienting. As we watch Goya paint a portrait of the young Inés (Natalie Portman), it’s hard to forget that he’s Swedish and she’s, well, Queen Amidala. Actors are actors, but somehow this doesn’t ring true.

It’s less distracting as the characters are plunged into the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, led by Father Lorenzo (Bardem).

In fact, one wonders whether Forman created this place-less feel on purpose. In this world, nationalities, identities and convictions shift at will. Spanish priests and French and British soldiers take their turns bringing violence to Madrid. Napoleon puts his brother on the throne, replacing a previous king and queen who weren’t Spanish either, but French and Italian. A priest becomes a rapist becomes a revolutionary; a whore becomes a lady of the court. We’re all acting, so who cares if Goya is from Stockholm, or King Carlos (Randy Quaid) is from Houston?

The film reminds us that cruelty is universal. It also reminds us, if we need reminding, that it’s alive and well today.

The film’s most electrifying scene explores the viability of torture as used by authorities.

I can’t say more except that José Luis Gómez, as Inés’ father, gives a stunning performance, hosting a dinner party the viewer will never forget.

Bardem is unsurprisingly creepy and fascinating. The only problem is that, next to his terrifying, Oscar-winning work in 2007’s “No Country for Old Men,” even the Spanish Inquisition pales in comparison. Portman is decent, though another odd casting trick with her character flops.

Skarsgård is terrific, but the film’s final surprise is how it sidelines its title character.

In 2003’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” a servant serves as a lens, showing us Johannes Vermeer. In “Goya’s Ghosts,” the artist himself is the lens through which we see the madness of the world around him, and around us. He’s the film’s most enduring figure, but he’s an everyman.

Of course, this everyman responded to the abuse of power by creating great works of art and social criticism – making viewers take another look at what our own response will be.

 

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