Is it any surprise director Milos Forman, a man who often has cast a skeptical eye on the human race, would find the similarly jaded 19th-century Spanish painter Francisco Goya fascinating? Two peas in a pod, Forman and Goya have had a front-row seat for the various power grabs and violent upheavals of history.
Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus) lost both of his parents at Auschwitz and witnessed the brutal 1968 Soviet invasion of his native Czechoslovakia.
Goya, too, was witness to history's myriad reversals of fortune in his own life during the 18th and 19th centuries. There was the mendacity of the Spanish royals, who, as court painter, Goya tended to render as pompous grotesques in his painting "The Family of Charles IV." Add to this the horrors of the Inquisition and the depravity of war (dramatically illustrated in Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808), and it's clear how Goya became a glass-half-empty kind of guy. His paintings, most famously "Saturn Devouring One of His Children" and his series of etchings "Los Caprichos," belched up human nightmares. It's hard to imagine in our own anemic age a public figure whose vision is as filled with such fury.
Goya's Ghosts takes the individual images of Goya's astoundingly brutal paintings and spills them out onto the larger tapestry of history. Forman's action-fueled, often soapy melodrama chronicles the astounding brutality Goya witnessed.
Though when the film opens Goya's prints are scurrilous enough to invite the condemnation of the Spanish clergy, in demeanor Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) is as mild as a summer rain. He enjoys the distance his career gives him from the machinations and power grabs of 18th-century Madrid.
Even when his beautiful model Ines (Natalie Portman), the daughter of a wealthy merchant, disappears within the catacomb dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition, Goya proves ineffectual in securing her release despite his personal acquaintance with the powerful Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), who might save her.
Not unlike a filmmaker who observes and records for later, Forman's Goya is a relatively passive figure whose protest is lodged primarily through art. For much of the drama, he stands on the sidelines as if paralyzed in horror. The twin poles of moral action in Goya's Ghosts in fact move between the rapacious and morally suspect Lorenzo (in a demonically charismatic performance from Bardem), and the swallow-fragile Ines, whose imprisonment attracts the man of God in all the wrong ways.
There is unrelenting evil on display in the film, particularly the impersonal evil of French soldiers shown raping the Spanish women of the country they have conquered. But Forman also shows a more horrifically intimate malevolence in Lorenzo, motivated by a lust for power and a perverse sexual desire that extends to the helpless captive Ines.
Goya's Ghosts never achieves anything close to the fury of the artist's canvases but will undoubtedly create a feeling of helplessness in viewers that certainly corresponds with present times.
Is Goya's passivity any wonder? The bright light of the Czech New Wave, Forman has often sided with misunderstood underdogs. From his empathetic treatment of a lovelorn, provincial young woman in 1965's Loves of a Blonde to his allegiance in 1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to a mental patient, Forman has illustrated the evils of institutional power, whether carried out by commies or Nurse Ratched.
It turns out the world the Spanish painter depicted wasn't some hyperbole in oils but about the way things went down in the 18th and 19th centuries when barbarity was carried out in the name of God and country.
The whores and the midgets and the way fortune changes hands in the blink of an eye can give Goya's Ghosts the melodramatic air of little Miss Scarlett O'Hara, flitting hither and yon on the winds of change. Though he often edges too closely to the foamy heights of conventional melodrama (a mother's perpetually foiled search for her missing child is but one example of the film's overheated imagination), Forman still displays power in his approach. The way he places tiny Ines at the center of the fracas and moves her about like a chess piece from prison to crazy house and beyond shows his continuing, touching sympathy for history's losers.
Though Forman's film centers on the violent upheavals of 18th- and 19th-century Spain, many will find unmissable parallels to 21st-century America. The contemporary allusions come in Forman's (and co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere's) references to the ineffectiveness of torture during the Spanish Inquisition and in Napoleon's notion that French soldiers will be welcomed by the Spanish as "liberators."
Forman's most elegant gesture in an often inelegantly sudsy picture is how he thoughtfully uses the past for consideration of our present. Goya's Ghosts bears the imprint of a director who keeps coming back to the timeless circumstance of oppression and the effect is, indeed, haunting.