‘Goya’s Ghosts’ relives the Inquisition


Israeli-born Jewish-American actress Natalie Portman stars in director Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghosts , a visually gorgeous, sweeping historical epic set in Spain and spanning the waning years of the Inquisition in the late eighteenth century and moving into the Napoleonic Wars on the early nineteenth century. Goya’s Ghosts is a complex and multi-layered fictional tale featuring the great Spanish painter Francisco Goya, a story that drips with irony and grapples with questions about ideology, politics and personal ethical dilemmas.

Shot on location in Spain, the English-language film is beautifully photographed, recreating all the contrasts of lush court costumes and the stunning brutality and violence of the time period but the story is filled with grim twists amid ethical challenges. Goya’s Ghosts is as visually beautifully as Goya’s paintings, with colorful, lush costumes. Powerfully acted, the film uses history as the backdrop for a dark and ironic tale. The plot revolves around three people: Spanish painter Francisco Goya (played by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard), the fictional Ines Bilbatuas (Natalie Portman), who often serves as the artist’s model and muse, and another fictional character, Father Lorenzo (acclaimed Spanish actor Javier Bardem), an ambitious Catholic priest who commissions a portrait from Goya.

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Francisco Goya is an icon of Spanish culture and in real life, as in this film, famous both for his paintings depicting the lavish Spanish court and for his depiction of ordinary Spaniards, and Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s occupation, capturing both the beauty of the court and the horrors of war. However, the artist was focused on his art and recording the human events he saw happening around him, rather than politics and ideologies.

In this story, Goya is a witness to history, and the events that sweep over them all, including the Inquisition’s hunt for heretics, particularly for Jews who outwardly converted to Christianity but secretly continued to practice Judaism, and later, the French Revolution’s spread of ideas about freedom and equality, delivered at the point of French soldiers’ swords.

Portman delivers a tour-de-force performance in three roles, playing the innocent young Ines, the same woman many years later and a beautiful, fiery prostitute named Alicia. The film boasts a stellar cast, including Bardem, the star of The Sea Within, and is helmed by Oscar-winning director Forman, whose work includes Amadeus and Man On The Moon.

Although Goya is a court painter for King Carlos (Randy Quaid), away from court he lives a life among ordinary people, concerned only about his career, not politics. Ines, the pampered teenaged daughter of a wealthy merchant, one of Goya’s friends, often poses as a model for him. When Father Lorenzo, a priest who has commissioned a portrait, visits Goya’s studio, Lorenzo is struck by her beauty in Goya’s paintings. Later, when the cunning Father Lorenzo seeks to advance his standing in the Church by encouraging the Grand Inquisitor (Michael Lonsdale) to re-double efforts to root out those secretly practicing “Jewish rituals,” the naive Ines is mistakenly caught up in the effort when she declines to eat pork at an inn.

Ironically, Ines’s family does have Jewish ancestry but whether she is even aware of this is blurred by her confession under torture. Her distraught family and their friend Goya appeal to Father Lorenzo to intercede on her behalf, unaware of Lorenzo’s role in re-kindling the Church’s hunt for hidden Jews. Finally, her father (Jose Luis Gomez) takes some bold steps in an attempt to win her release.

Years later, Napoleon’s invasion of Spain topples both the Inquisition and King Carlos, but the characters are hardly freed from their tangled past, any more than French talk of the ideals of equality and freedom really reflect the Spaniards’ experience under French occupation. For some, the film’s themes of torture and the futility of spreading freedom at the point of French swords will have modern day resonances but the director leaves these conclusions to the audience’s own choice.

While the Jewish-American Portman plays a young woman whose Jewish heritage makes her the object of persecution, the actress is not the only one associated with the film who has Jewish links. Renowned Czech-born director Forman lost both his parents to Nazi death camps. His father was Jewish but his mother was not, yet they both were sent to concentration camps for their efforts in opposing the Nazis.

As for political turmoil and irony that forms the film’s backdrop, Forman saw his native Czech country go from democracy, to Nazi rule, to Communist rule, and back to democracy, so the sweep of political change and its effects on individual lives, a theme of the film, is a topic he knows well.

Forman originally planned to cast Spanish actor Bardem as Goya. As the script evolved, the focus shifted from the artist to the fictional character of Father Lorenzo, and the director re-cast Bardem in that role.

For the great artist, Forman cast against expectations by choosing the lesser-known Skarsgard. The focus of the plot is on the changes that the ideologically-driven Lorenzo undergoes but, in many ways, the real star of the film is Portman, in her multiple roles as the tragic Ines and streetwise Alicia.

The film’s title leads us to expect more on the great artist, a fascinating figure in history, rather than on the fictional characters that are the real center of the film. While some of Goya’s paintings are recreated in some scenes, the artist is largely an observer, more of a supporting role in the film.

The acting and production values are top-notch, and the film’s effort to raise questions about moral and ethical issues is admirable but Goya’s Ghosts dark, ironic tale is not for every taste.

As gifted as Skarsgard is as an actor, the against-type casting for Goya seems somewhat unconvincing. However, Portman’s performance, along with the other actors’ work, and the dark complexity of the film, still make Goya’s Ghosts worth seeing.

Goya’s Ghosts opens at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema on August 3.