Painted into Corners...
Another disappointing film from a master
By Steffen Silvis, The Prague Post
January 31, 2007
The old guard is failing. Amid the usual overspill of “new talent” from
the Hollywood pipeline, a film audience could always look forward to a
mature slice of cinema from the old pros. Bunuel and Hitchcock made
great films practically on their deathbeds. And, though there was some
slackening in powers, Fellini’s and Kurasawa’s last films were still
interesting (though the former was mired in Cinecitta nostalgia, while
the latter was sliding toward kitsch).
Lately, however, the giants seem diminished. Woody
Allen continues to sink into irrelevancy, Altman bowed out with a piece
of folksy nonsense, Scorsese is skirting close to self-parody, Vera
Chtylová confuses improvisational clichés for cutting-edge and Menzel
has lost his Hrabalian touch.
The latest disappointment comes courtesy of Milos
Forman. His Goya’s Ghosts is sumptuously filmed and boasts a fine
cast. But there’s no energy behind the project and certainly no magic on
the screen. It’s one of those frustrating films that you can neither
love nor hate. Instead, it’s resolutely mediocre.
With a patchy script by Bunuel’s great collaborator,
Jean-Paul Carriere, Goya’s Ghosts attempts to cover the history
of Spain in the time of painter Francisco Goya. The first 45 minutes of
the film are engaging, as we see a corrupt nation, bewitched by
priestcraft, slowly tilt toward revolution and civil war through his
Goya was at the center of events. He was both court
painter to the crapulous King Carlos IV and a back-street caricaturist
of his society, a Spanish Hogarth. Though the infamous Spanish
Inquistion would joyfully shackle him in chains for his critiques, Goya
enjoyed high-placed protectors, even among some church leaders.
The film opens with Goya (Stellan Skarsgaard)
effortlessly maintaining his balance between these worlds. While
painting the portraits of an Inquistion leader, Brother Lorenzo (Javier
Bardem), and a young woman from the merchant class, Ines (Natalie
Portman), he is also cranking out his grotesque broadsides against the
mores and manners of his fellow Spaniards.
When Ines falls foul of the Inquistion (she’s seen
refusing a hunk of suckling pig, which leads monks to suspect her of
Jewish sympathies), Goya is drafted by her father to seek help from
Lorenzo. As the poor Ines is being tortured in the well-equipped
dungeons of God’s house, the intractable Lorenzo preaches the benefits
of torture to Ines’ family over dinner — though the family will soon
change his mind quite dramatically.
This is all of some interest, and one is led to
believe that the film will present a great contemporary moral debate
before a backdrop of war and chaos. The exact opposite occurs, however,
as the characters all take supporting roles to the confusing upheaval
surrounding the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, especially Goya himself.
The performances are fine. Skarsgard has a refreshing mischievousness
about him, which one imagines Goya possessing. The highlights of the
film are of Goya working, which Forman follows like a rapt art
historian. One scene of the actual printing process of Goya’s time is a
fascinating technical display, containing more insight than all the rest
of the film put together.
Bardem as an eventual fallen angel is both a menacing
and attractive figure, a less-addled Rasputin who knows how to
manipulate people for his own ends. The supporting cast is equally
strong, with Randy Quaid’s wryly comical impersonation of King Carlos
IV, and the great Michael Lonsdale’s Father Gregorio, a quietly witty
The loose link in this chain is Portman, who is
called upon to play two roles: Ines and her daughter Alicia. Portman is
fine, sometimes truly touching, as the ill-used Ines — until the last
part of the film. Ines’ confinement by the Inquistion lasts 15 years
before she is finally released, by the victorious French soldiers, into
an unrecognizable world. Because of the torture she’s endured, Ines has
been mentally and physically damaged. The problem lies in the way
Portman and her director have imagined Ines’ condition. With a vacant
stare and a nervous, masticating jaw, Portman, hilariously, looks like
Gilda Radner’s character Lisa Lubner on the old Saturday Night Live.
From there the film has nowhere to go but down, though Goya’s
Ghosts never goes far enough to achieve badness. It’s just a