Monday, August 27, 2007

Goya's Ghosts

Movie name: Goya’s Ghosts
Year of release: 2006
Director: Milos Forman
Stars: Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgaard, Randy Quaid, Michael Londsdale, Blanca Portillo, José Luís Gomez
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4

After the excellent films that were “Man on the Moon” and “People vs. Larry Flynt”, Milos Forman reunites with his producer of “Amadeus” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to make another prestige film, however this time the results fall flat – the film is incongruent, overly simplistic and anchored in performances that are just barely there.

The legendary Milos Forman has produced quite a distinctive body of work since coming from Poland to the United States. From the multiple Oscar winning cases that were “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus”, to other solid films like “Ragtime”, “Valmont”, “People Vs. Larry Flynt” and “Man on the Moon”. Though his filmography isn’t very extensive, he had his share of hits, usually with “prestigious films”, usually produced by Saul Zaentz (also responsible for the production of “The English Patient”). “Goya’s Ghosts” his latest project was a production anchored in Europe, shot entirely in Spain, with a wide variety of talent that included the Spaniard actor Javier Bardem (already an Oscar nominee for “Before Night Falls”), Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgaard. However whereas his previous films all had a rich screenplay on which to fall back on, “Goya’s Ghosts” falls prey of an overtly simplistic portrait of an era that demands another view, definitely one more detailed and richer in content than this one (for a more interesting look at the inquisition, Jean Jacques-Annaud’s “The Name of the Rose” is a good illustration).
The film starts by introducing us to the drawings of Francisco Goya, deemed heretic by the Spanish inquisition, of which Father Lorenzo is one of the main instigators. Goya is also the painter commissioned by the royal family, which means that though he has considerable enemies, he also has friends in particularly high positions. The inquisitors’ spies end up catching in their net the young and beautiful Inez, Goya’s muse and daughter of a rich merchant in Madrid. She is accused of practicing Judaism and therefore tortured so she can confess to it. In their efforts to free Inez, her family exacts upon Lorenzo a similar torture, in order to prove the fact that under torture anyone will sign and confess to anything. Lorenzo upon visiting Inez ends up having sex with her, and his efforts to free her are to no avail – the Inquisition accepts the money from her father, but do not sanction her freedom. 15 years go by and Goya now deaf is still painting and portraying the reality around him. The Napoleonic invasions reach Spain, bringing with it new ideals and demoting all that the Inquisition had installed in society. Upon the freedom of the Inquisition’s prisoners, a prematurely aged Inez comes home to a dead family. She also informs Goya that she has had a child while imprisoned – the child was taken from her and placed in an orphanage. The father, the returned Lorenzo, now with the French government (and married with a family) puts Inez in an asylum and discovers the child is now a grown woman that is also a prostitute.
The film tries to present the art of Goya with the social changes and dynamics that the Spanish society has suffered, but in doing so focuses on so many aspects of it, and tries to branch out in so many directions, that eventually all the History (with all it’s complexities), seem to be reduced to a flicker whose only purpose is to place the recurring characters in their right places. The fall of the Inquisition is presented in a way that seems as if though that it was just a simple mechanism that you can turn off with the appearance of the new “democratic” Lorenzo. Also with all the dynamics that occur during the film, Goya’s character seems lost, and the thing, which you would like to learn the most, his art, his life, are never really explored. The main focus ends up being the Inez, and her daughter Alicia, story (both played by Natalie Portman), though they too seem to be victims of an overtly simplified storyline – a baby born in jail that is sent to an orphanage (in the 18th century, within the Inquisition’s prisons?). The actors seem to also struggle with their roles – Javier Bardem, one of the most interesting and versatile actors around, feels flat and without any nuance, in a role that if well written could have given him another dimension. As it is, his Lorenzo seems like a puppet that changes his coat as he goes along. Stellan Skarsgaard also a wonderful actor has little to do here – he walks his air of surprise and bewilderment to what surrounds him, and his paintings seem to fall flat (there’s no energy like the one that was present in Maurice Pialat’s “Van Gogh” or even Martin Scorsese’s episode of “New York Stories” with Nick Nolte). Natalie Portman takes a serious risk with her two characters, but she ends up saving what little there is to be saved from the film. As Inez her innocence and hope are shattered as she descends to the horrors of the Inquisition and to what they do to a single person. Even if her presence as Alicia amounts to nothing, Inez is a shattered shadow of her former self when she walks from the prison’s gates. Natalie Portman tries to show the ghosts that someone carries and the pain that never really abandons you. She is the soul of the movie.
All and all this is a film that resonates mediocrity, no matter what talent it has got behind – the ambition was vast, but the results fall really short. For more interesting takes on History and persecutions, you may want to investigate Patrice Chéreau’s “Queen Margot” and even Shekar Kapur’s “Elizabeth”.