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  Goya's Ghosts
Milos Forman

Joanna Caird
posted 26 July 2007

The concept of a film about the life and work of 18th-century Spanish artist Francisco Goya is not a bad one. In recent years there have been several successful art-based feature films, from Julie Taylor’s Academy Award-winning Frida, to Ron Howard’s art-history, murder-mystery mongrel, The Da Vinci Code, to Peter Webber’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, and more recently, Raoul Ruiz’s Klimt. Aside from The Da Vinci Code, these films tend not to be of the blockbuster variety: they attract an audience that doesn’t mind a bit of an intellectual challenge; psychology is important, the artist’s mind put under the microscope in an attempt at understanding their work.

A film about Goya therefore sounds like a great idea: the man created dark, mysterious works of genius; was a favourite with the Spanish court, despite his tendency to paint his subjects exactly as they were, complete with imperfections; and went deaf (and then arguably mad) as a result of a fever. The historical context is also promising, the Spanish Peninsular War providing a bloody backdrop.

Unfortunately, despite all this potential, an experienced cast and a director whose biography includes such cinematic greats as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, this film crashes and burns. Stellan Skarsgård (Francisco Goya) doesn’t do too badly in his interpretation of the tortured artist, and Natalie Portman is gorgeous enough to make her believable as his muse, Ines. The trouble arises however when Portman opens her mouth: for some reason director and co-writer Milos Forman decided it would be a good idea for everyone to speak English with a vaguely Spanish accent; now this is all well and good for Javier Bardem (Brother Lorenzo) who is, in fact, Spanish, but everyone else, particularly Portman, just sounds silly.

This is not the film’s only absurdity: after being thrown into prison for heresy, the beautiful Ines catches the eye of Brother Lorenzo who while fighting for her release and the salvation of her soul, lets his passion get the better of him. The result is baby Alicia, brought up in an orphanage having never met either of her parents. 16 years pass, during which the French invade and Spain is thrown into chaos; without royal patronage (and his muse) Goya falls into relative obscurity, becoming somewhat of a mad old man. It is at this point that Goya, while wandering in the park one day, comes across the lovely and nubile Alicia (now earning her keep as a whore). How does he recognise her having never laid eyes on her in her short life? Simple, she looks exactly like her mother. And how did Forman achieve such a fine feat of casting? Both roles are played by Portman. At the point at which we think that Ines is dead, this almost works, but when she reappears, having been released from heretics’ prison after the departure of Napoleonic forces, it all falls apart. It is clear that Portman was aware of the need to differentiate between the two women - one old, one young, one beautiful and quick-witted, one reduced to ugly madness – because she keeps her tongue firmly stuck in her cheek (and not in a good way), limps around and mumbles her little heart out from the moment Ines finds herself at liberty.

When Lorenzo (now no longer of the church, but married with children) meet Alicia and, without realising she is his daughter, tries to seduce her, this film becomes almost too horrible to watch. Goya’s Ghosts makes a few interesting (but not very original) points about the power of temptation and the hypocrisy of religion, and there’s quite a funny joke based on the fact that in Spanish the words for ‘monkey’ (mono) and ‘monk’ (monjo) are very similar, but all in all this is a film to be avoided.


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