Czech filmmaker Forman has long been a chronicler of insane geniuses, from Mozart (Amadeus) to Larry Flynt (The People vs. Larry Flynt) to Andy Kaufman (Man on the Moon), but with his new film (and first in eight years), Goya’s Ghosts, it’s tempting to wonder if the director himself has gone a bit off the deep end.
At first glance, one would expect Ghosts to be another of Forman’s off-kilter biopics, featuring as it does the legendary Spanish painter Francisco Goya (Skarsgard) as one of its main characters. But Goya is only about a third of the film’s focus, and the story isn’t really about his life or his extraordinary artwork. Instead, it’s as much about the surrounding fictionalized story of young Ines (Portman), who models for Goya and is arrested during the Spanish Inquisition on suspicion of being a Jew (absurdly, for refusing to eat pork at a tavern).
Another of Goya’s portrait subjects, the eerily composed Father Lorenzo (Bardem) finds his life entwined with Ines’, as both leader of the Inquisition and, paradoxically, the man who comforts her (and forces himself on her sexually) during her long imprisonment. Lorenzo and Ines are fictional figures, used by Forman to tell not the story of Goya’s life, but of a period in Spanish history marked by chaos and upheaval. Halfway through the movie, events jump ahead 15 years, as the French have invaded and sniveling opportunist Lorenzo has switched from church enforcer to proponent of secular humanism, at least as embodied by the bloody French Revolution.
Shot and structured like a sumptuous, Oscar-baiting costume epic, Ghosts is more of a disjointed oddity, with perplexing casting (Randy Quaid as the king of Spain? Sure, why not?) and soap opera-style plot devices (late in the film, Portman also plays Ines and Lorenzo’s illegitimate daughter, a prostitute named Alicia). Bardem gives a truly bizarre performance, head constantly tilted like he’s hearing voices, and Portman chews plenty of scenery as Ines once she’s released from prison—and relieved of her senses. It’s all sort of fascinatingly messy, lurching from one baffling set piece to the next, but the fascination wears thin by the time the English invade to drive out the French, and Goya is left a passive observer to the craziness around him, terminally sidelined in the movie that bears his name.
Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard
Directed by Milos Forman