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Goya's Ghosts 

click to enlarge Goya (Stellan Skarsgrd), with his portrait of Brother Lorenzo
  • Goya (Stellan Skarsgrd), with his portrait of Brother Lorenzo

We join our historical drama already in progress. In 1792 Madrid, the Holy Order of the Inquisition is examining artwork and muttering that depraved prints from artist Francisco Goya are making Spain look bad. But the dark and broody Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) -- apparently something of a free-thinker -- defends the works on a rhetorical technicality (the illustrations aren't evil, he suggests, they just show evil). So we're hardly surprised to find Lorenzo in Goya's studio soon after, having his own peevish visage immortalized in oils.

The uneasy relationship between Lorenzo and Goya forms one thread of Goya's Ghosts, a somewhat tangled film from Milos Forman that ineffectively marries history and soap opera with a twist of contemporary commentary. Despite its title, the film is no bio-pic; Goya (Stellan Skarsgård), who paints royalty, the wealthy and the walls of chapels, mostly serves as our conduit to life among the clergy and the well-to-do during the Inquisition and subsequent Napoleonic invasion.

As usual, it takes a woman to get the story about the two men heated up.

Ines Bilbatua (Natalie Portman) is a Bright Young Thing who models for Goya. While out slumming at a juke-joint (where else do women idly shimmy on a raised platform?), Ines refuses to eat a slimy-looking piece of pork. Watching from the corner are agents of the Church, tasked with ferreting out people who don't eat pork -- or Jews, same difference. So the dumbfounded Ines gets summoned to the Office of the Inquisitor. (Play along: "Noooooooooooooooooooobody ... expects the Spanish Inquisition!")

Ines is tossed in a dungeon (sans clothes!) -- and at the request of the girl's wealthy father, Goya asks Lorenzo to tap his pastoral connections to help. Instead, Lorenzo taps the chained-to-the-wall Ines, telling the poor creature that his sexual assault is "prayer."

I'll stop here to add that, while this sounds deliciously overheated, most of the drama in Goya's Ghosts in fact feels bloodless and perfunctory. And no more so than in the truly bizarre next scene -- the most awkward dinner party ever.

As the Bilbatua family politely chats over Ines' incarceration, Lorenzo solicitously passes on Ines' "love" to his hosts. Discussion follows of how Ines was "put to the question," a particularly deadpan euphemism for torture used to elicit information. Then the evening goes right off the rails when, in an admirably genteel fashion, the host hangs the mildly protesting Brother Lorenzo from the chandelier.

As entertaining as this all seems, it's simply a preamble to the real drama, which takes place only when the story jumps ahead 15 years. Here comes Napoleon to set Spain right, and our players are all reunited. The formerly disgraced Lorenzo returns from an exile in France, an "enlightened" wealthy family man; Goya's star has dimmed; and Ines, looking much the worse for wear, is released from prison. (Portman now goes full-bore for the cheap seats -- what pretty actress doesn't relish playing crippled and loony? She hunches, shuffles, twists her jaw, mutters about a lost baby ... and fails to convince us.)

We dabble in the messiness of Napoleonic Spain. Oh fickle fate -- now it's Lorenzo who decrees state morality, sniping at his old Inquisitor boss: "No liberty for the enemies of liberty."

Naturally this blather about the state-sanctioned intolerance, the ineffectiveness of torture, about occupiers claiming to be liberators, is all meant to remind us of today's headlines. Yet the allusions are not clearly drawn. Is French rule worse than the Inquisition? Depends on who you are, it seems. And the British are saviors and rapists? Perhaps all power is bad. Ghosts can't even sort out a workable path for its protagonists, who instead of constructive action opt for collusion, acquiescence, madness or the gallows.

Part of the muddle is that Ghosts can't decide whether Goya or Francisco is its primary focus, so neither character is fully developed. And for a story rife with outrage, neither man provides much of a moral center: Goya is compromised by his ambitions, and Lorenzo is weak and an opportunist.

Likewise it's hard to separate out the few scenes concerned with grave matters from the surrounding baby-daddy drama and comic pursuit of whores. Bardem and Skarsgård frown and pontificate while around them there's a parody of 18th-century costume drama: leering soldiers and cackling crones; bosoms overspilling dirty bodices; a century's worth of ill-advised hairdos; and Randy Quaid as the King of Spain.

Goya's Ghosts is lushly photographed, with set pieces that look like period paintings come to life; the production is split between gloriously grubby and impossibly ornate. It's not central to the story at all, but I was fascinated by the depiction of 18th-century print-making, a precise and meticulous transformation of Goya's artistic vision into marketable material. It's too bad that this cinematic adaptation turned out so lovely to look at -- but so hampered by blurry intent.

Starts Fri., Aug. 31.

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