Goya’s Ghosts

“Goya’s Ghosts” is one of the most disappointing films of Milos Forman, winner of two Best Picture Oscars. On paper, the story of the noted Spanish painter Francisco Goya, placed against the context of the infamous Inquisition, is the kind of period film that Forman is well-suited for, having done good costume pictures (“Amadeus”) and decent ones (“Valmont”).

Moreover, though the movie is set in 1792, when the Spanish Inquisition was still operating, there’s no doubt that Forman wants to draw analogy to more contemporary eras of oppression and suppression, such as his own native country, Czechoslovakia invaded by the Russians, and the current situation in the Middle East, to mention just two cases.

What’s even more perplexing is that the script is co-written by Forman and
Jean-Claude Carrire, who wrote such witty and exquisite screenplays for Luis Bunuel and other distinguished directors.

At once ambitious and vacuous, “Goya’s Ghosts” fails to illuminate any of its three thematic strands: Goya as a unique painter, the oppression of the Inquisition, and a portrait of Spain at the end of the eighteenth century.

Diffuse and uninvolving on any level, “Goya’s Ghosts” also fails to utilize two of the best actors working today: Javier Bardem, who plays Brother Lorenzo, and Natalie Portman, as the victim of Jewish ancestors Inez/ Alicia, both Oscar-nominated thesps. Among other things, Forman’s picture may go down in history as the first film in which the extraordinarily gifted Portman has given a bad performance, a combined result of a lousy dialogue and misguided direction.

The film is divided into two parts, with equal running time. The first records Goya’s rise to eminence with the court, intercut with the shenanigans of the Inquisition. Exactly mid-way, the saga jumps ahead 15 years to the early nineteenth century, when Napoleon’s army invaded Spain and to Goya’s mature years (See below for chronology).

Saga begins with depiction of the Inquisition, including the Inquisitor General (Michael Lonsdale) and Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) going through though Goya’s famous “Caprichos” etchings. The Inquisitor General is troubled that Lorenzo has commissioned a portrait from Goya (Stellan Skarsgard). As a result, Lorenzo proposes to reinstate the Inquisition.

First victim is Goya’s model Ines (Natalie Portman), the beautiful daughter of wealthy merchant Tomas Bilbatua (Jose Luis Gomez). She is accused of refusing to eat pork at a big fiesta. Ines is put to “The Question,” the expression used for executing torture, and under brutal torture, she makes a confession.

Ines’s father then invites Lorenzo for a meal at his house, at which he seeks to prove the axiom that under torture, anyone will confess to anything. This indeed happens, in one of the film’s most preposterous scenes, when Lorenzo is forced to confess that he’s the offspring of monkeys!

Stellan Skarsgard plays the painter Goya as a rather sympathetic artist with some ambiguous shading as to his motives for painting both religious and secular figures; in a recurring motif, none of Goya’s subjects likes his or her portrait.

Rather simplistically, this wannabe epos divides its characters into two clear groups, those who side with God and those who side with the Devil. Michel Lonsdale’s Cardinal is persuaded that “putting the Question” is the only way to rid Spain of the malaise of growing heresy. He is contrasted with Brother Lorenzo as the Devil incarnate. In visit after visit in prison, Lorenzo consoles the victimized girl, who’s often naked, abusing his powers with hearty embraces that lead to a baby and eventually insanity.

Vet American actor Randy Quaid is miscast as the King Carlos IV, urged by Goya “to do something.” By then, however, the French invasion is at hand and Napoleon’s idiot brother is about to be placed on the throne.

Structurally messy, the movie is not even pleasing to the eyes, unfolding as a series of tableaux that lack inner connection, not to speak of resonance.

An international co-production, “Goya’s Ghosts” is cursed with all the ills that go with that disreputable genre: nave, anachronistic dialogue, blend of acting styles and accents, and worse of all, lack of unified vision thematically or visually. It doesnt help that the pacing is sluggish and the movie way overlong (close to two hours).

A former teacher of mine used to say that most directors, even the great ones, have one major folly in their resumes. I have not doubts that in Milos Forman’s case, “Goya’s Ghosts” fills the bill.

End Note

Goya had a fascinating life and career, but you couldn’t tell it from this movie. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a good movie about the colorful figure of Goya. In 1959, Hollywood made the kitschy melodrama, “The Naked Maja,” also a co-production, directed by Henry Koster and starring Anthony Franciosa as the painter and Ava Gardner as his famed muse and model.

Born in 1746, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, occupies a special place in art history. In 1799, after traveling to Italy and marrying the daughter of the Spanish court artist, he was appointed first court painter, the highest artistic position attainable. His themes ranged from festivals and the royal court to a chronicle of the era’s history, a series of 80 prints known as “Los Caprichios.” As Goya aged, and after a hearing loss, his paintings darkened and he produced some of the most frightening paintings of madness and fantasy, the style of which prefigures the expressionist movement in art. Some of his most important paintings, depictions of Spain’s invasion by Napoleon’s army, describe in vivid detail the disaster of war. Goya spent much of his adult life in Madrid. After the French were expelled from Spain, nearly blind and deaf, he died in 1828 (age 82) in self-imposed exile in Bordeaux.


Brother Lorenzo – Javier Bardem
Ines – Natalie Portman
Goya – Stellan Skarsgard
King Carlos IV – Randy Quaid
Tomas Bilbatua – Jose Luis Gomez
Inquisitor General – Michael Lonsdale
Queen Mary Luisa – Blanca Portillo


MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 116 minutes.

Warner Brothers Pictures Intl. release (in Spain) of a Xuxa Production/Saul Zaentz production in association with Kanzaman Films, with the participation of Antena 3.
Produced by Saul Zaentz.
Executive producer, Paul Zaentz.
Co-producers, Denise O’Dell, Mark Albela.
Directed by Milos Forman.
Screenplay, Forman, Jean-Claude Carriere.
Camera, Javier Aguirresarobe.
Editor, Adam Boome.
Music, Varhan Bauer.
Production designer, Patrizia von Brandenstein. Costume designer, Yvonne Blake