Painted into Corners...
Another disappointing film from a master

By Steffen Silvis, The Prague Post
January 31, 2007

The old guard is failing. Amid the usual overspill of “new talent” from the Hollywood pipeline, a film audience could always look forward to a mature slice of cinema from the old pros. Bunuel and Hitchcock made great films practically on their deathbeds. And, though there was some slackening in powers, Fellini’s and Kurasawa’s last films were still interesting (though the former was mired in Cinecitta nostalgia, while the latter was sliding toward kitsch).

Lately, however, the giants seem diminished. Woody Allen continues to sink into irrelevancy, Altman bowed out with a piece of folksy nonsense, Scorsese is skirting close to self-parody, Vera Chtylová confuses improvisational clichés for cutting-edge and Menzel has lost his Hrabalian touch.

The latest disappointment comes courtesy of Milos Forman. His Goya’s Ghosts is sumptuously filmed and boasts a fine cast. But there’s no energy behind the project and certainly no magic on the screen. It’s one of those frustrating films that you can neither love nor hate. Instead, it’s resolutely mediocre.

With a patchy script by Bunuel’s great collaborator, Jean-Paul Carriere, Goya’s Ghosts attempts to cover the history of Spain in the time of painter Francisco Goya. The first 45 minutes of the film are engaging, as we see a corrupt nation, bewitched by priestcraft, slowly tilt toward revolution and civil war through his eyes.

Goya was at the center of events. He was both court painter to the crapulous King Carlos IV and a back-street caricaturist of his society, a Spanish Hogarth. Though the infamous Spanish Inquistion would joyfully shackle him in chains for his critiques, Goya enjoyed high-placed protectors, even among some church leaders.

The film opens with Goya (Stellan Skarsgaard) effortlessly maintaining his balance between these worlds. While painting the portraits of an Inquistion leader, Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), and a young woman from the merchant class, Ines (Natalie Portman), he is also cranking out his grotesque broadsides against the mores and manners of his fellow Spaniards.

When Ines falls foul of the Inquistion (she’s seen refusing a hunk of suckling pig, which leads monks to suspect her of Jewish sympathies), Goya is drafted by her father to seek help from Lorenzo. As the poor Ines is being tortured in the well-equipped dungeons of God’s house, the intractable Lorenzo preaches the benefits of torture to Ines’ family over dinner — though the family will soon change his mind quite dramatically.

This is all of some interest, and one is led to believe that the film will present a great contemporary moral debate before a backdrop of war and chaos. The exact opposite occurs, however, as the characters all take supporting roles to the confusing upheaval surrounding the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, especially Goya himself.

The performances are fine. Skarsgard has a refreshing mischievousness about him, which one imagines Goya possessing. The highlights of the film are of Goya working, which Forman follows like a rapt art historian. One scene of the actual printing process of Goya’s time is a fascinating technical display, containing more insight than all the rest of the film put together.

Bardem as an eventual fallen angel is both a menacing and attractive figure, a less-addled Rasputin who knows how to manipulate people for his own ends. The supporting cast is equally strong, with Randy Quaid’s wryly comical impersonation of King Carlos IV, and the great Michael Lonsdale’s Father Gregorio, a quietly witty villain.

The loose link in this chain is Portman, who is called upon to play two roles: Ines and her daughter Alicia. Portman is fine, sometimes truly touching, as the ill-used Ines — until the last part of the film. Ines’ confinement by the Inquistion lasts 15 years before she is finally released, by the victorious French soldiers, into an unrecognizable world. Because of the torture she’s endured, Ines has been mentally and physically damaged. The problem lies in the way Portman and her director have imagined Ines’ condition. With a vacant stare and a nervous, masticating jaw, Portman, hilariously, looks like Gilda Radner’s character Lisa Lubner on the old Saturday Night Live. From there the film has nowhere to go but down, though Goya’s Ghosts never goes far enough to achieve badness. It’s just a middling affair.