Goya's Ghosts is not a movie about Spanish artist Francisco Goya the way that Girl with a Pearl Earring was about Vermeer, so banish that expectation right away. It's less about the artist than a film that uses Goya as entrée into the world he depicted. The film does as advertised, putting front and center his sinister, bizarre, ghoulish images — the sinners in the hands of an angry Catholic Church and in the midst of war — his ghosts, in other words.
In the film, Goya (Stellan Skarsgård) is brought to the attention of the Spanish Inquisition for his evil-looking prints. Inquisitor Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) says not to burn the messenger at the stake for his message: the Godlessness Goya reports is real and must be eradicated. Meanwhile, another has drawn the interest of the Inquisition: Inés (Natalie Portman, shocking and delightful, in one of her best performances), Goya's muse and a suspected Jew.
Goya's Ghosts, directed by Milos Forman, does nearly everything right. As a condemnation of modern politics (nailing everything from monarchy to theocracy to Nazism to communism to American adventurism), the film shows no mercy. As a biopic, it doesn't overstep its bounds: No explanation is given for Goya's artistic visions except that they're the only logical conclusion an eyewitness could come to. As historical recreation, the film fascinates.
The script has trouble finding a mission statement, but this plays as a strength. Eschewing formula, the film provides instead a story with a beginning, middle, and end both true to its setting and unmoored from a historical milieu.
As Lorenzo says, "There will be no liberty for the enemies of liberty." Mostly, the film shows the lunacy of fighting one extreme with another. The only side Goya's Ghosts finds sympathy for is the victims'. And, in the end, all that survives is madness.
Opens Friday, August 24th, at