Film Review #122: Goya’s Ghosts
Director: Milos Forman
Cast: Javier Bardem, Stellan Skarsgård, Natalie Portman
In the first of two explosive showdowns between the slender, hesitant Spanish painter Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgård) and the imposing conniver Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem in various flowing get-ups and locks), we are as surprised as Lorenzo. It’s fairly well into the movie; we have all gotten used to Goya as a pushover, a fussy string-bean of a man who squints and laughs self-deprecatingly when he would prefer not to answer. Over sixteen years in the making, as it turns out, following massive convulsions that both men survive – France’s 1808 invasion of Spain, the installation of Napoleon’s brother Joseph on the throne, the temporary fall of the Roman Catholic Church’s Spanish Inquisition – Goya’s insistence that Lorenzo take him to Inés Bilbatúa (Natalie Portman) is ferocious.
Lorenzo puts Goya off, suggests the painter is “obsessed.” Lorenzo has recently whisked this broken woman – long years ago one of Goya’s models – out of Goya’s hands, into an asylum, smoothly branding as madness her claim that she bore his child while rotting in the Inquisition’s prison. Now Goya has spotted the daughter, Alicia (also played by the impressive Portman), a tough cookie working the fine closed carriages of gentlemen in the capital’s park. To his artist’s eyes the extraordinary resemblance is proof enough. With rising anguish at his own cowardice and failure to protect Inés, Goya lists to Lorenzo the times her face has haunted him, shown up in his work – in its way this roll call a kind of argument that fuels his urgency. And here, director Forman lets us share what the painter sees – women’s faces from the breadth of Goya’s career flash on the screen, from paintings, on cathedral ceilings. This cavalcade concludes with an image of Truth as an angel lying dead – it’s the last etching from Goya’s monumental, 80-plate series, The Disasters of War. Then Goya bursts forward, grasps the much larger man with both hands, and a savage sound escapes the painter’s throat as Lorenzo staggers backward. “I won’t abandon her again! Take me to her!”
In this decisive moment, Lorenzo’s eyes widen, as if he sees Goya for the first time. Whatever he sees frightens him. Next time Goya visits, Lorenzo’s eyes widen again, dart about for escape before he decides to brazen it out. In a film so much about looking, where so much work gets done by characters glancing and nodding and staring at each other, part of Bardem’s Baroque portrayal of Lorenzo involves his seductive, always-hooded eyes, both a seasoned dissembler’s constant evading of detection and an ever-calculating gaze. During the second showdown – Lorenzo hatches another vicious scheme to hide his tracks, just as the English invade – there is a special authority in Goya’s commanding, “Look at you! You’re a whore!” precisely because Goya has mastered his own capacity to look and in doing so – this official court painter who has kept his place through several crowns of various nationalities – becomes less one himself.
Goya’s Ghosts has done reasonably well over the summer as a high-toned historical potboiler. Nearly two months into its US theatrical run, it’s still on a couple dozen art-house screens and has probably helped along the forthcoming DVD release here of Spanish director Carlos Saura’s film about the painter’s last years in exile, Goya in Bordeaux (2000). But Goya’s Ghosts has its complainers, chiefly around its use as allegory for Iraq, its distracting chronological inaccuracies, and difficulties with the way Czech director Forman, who has coaxed so many Oscar-caliber performances from previous casts, has managed his leads.
The film’s parallels with the war in Iraq are blunt: foreign invasion and brutal occupation, powerful radical clerics, fanatic insurgents, the people’s horrific suffering, the flowering of corruption in the vacuum left by failed regimes, and of course events at Abu Ghraib Prison. Part of the movie’s plot involves the Inquisition’s use of torture to discover heretics, in this case the delicate, vivacious and innocent Inés. Once her arms start to wrench out of their sockets, she confesses as quickly as she can figure out what she’s supposedly done. As the guest of her wealthy father at an exquisite private dinner designed to bribe, convince or blackmail him into freeing her, Brother Lorenzo – who has just raped Inés in her fetid cell, her small naked hips twisting futilely away from him – remains serenely impervious to Tomás Bilbatúa’s logic about torture until the merchant gives him with an on the spot demonstration.
Probably this scene more than any other has provoked the word “ham-fisted” – as if Forman exaggerates life under the Inquisition merely for the sake of passing agit-prop. Goya’s Ghosts should enjoy rediscovery in a few years when it’s less bound to today’s headlines. But this complaint illustrates why some filmmakers just insist they are only making fiction.
The issue of whether a film is propaganda echoes Goya’s situation as an artist and his stylistic attempts to portray the horrors of warfare in significant portions of his work more universally. It’s true that the film’s closing credits play over a magnificently detailed and sumptuous scrutiny of several paintings of specific historical events – believe me, you won’t be reading the tiny lists of names. That backdrop includes The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808, huge canvases respectively of French North African troops ("Marmelites") suppressing revolt against the occupation and part of the 5,000 executions of Spanish civilians that occurred over those two days.
But elsewhere, as in The Disasters etchings, Goya does something new. Here – despite recognizable military uniforms, the omnipresent Spanish arches and Goya’s repeated use of “I saw this!” to title graphic atrocities – we also see orienting horizons, frames and landmarks start to melt away, dissolving the markers that bind an image to a single location or date – and to a literal notion of “accuracy.” A line of men tied to stakes seems to stretch to infinity and the heaps of dead seem to fill the entire world. Fred Licht has written extensively about this quality in The Disasters and how the series has more in common with some modern war photography than with classical painting that depicts war as heroic and circumscribed. And in The Caprichos – the film opens with monks handing around images of beasts preying on the populace from this print series and worrying about Spain’s reputation – Goya portrays war and corruption in ways we now call surrealistic.
By rare luck a non-touring exhibit of The Disasters of War – a first-edition set of all 80 plates, loaned by the Arthur Ross Foundation to Syracuse University – has coincided with the film’s opening where I live. So I went to see Goya’s Ghosts after spending part of an afternoon with The Disasters. This greatly affected how I saw both the film and those irritated, puzzled complaints about Forman’s inaccurate chronology. I’m not sure his approach is entirely successful, because it calls enough attention to itself to confuse people. But it’s clearly an approach to the question of how we remember artists, rather than haphazard filmmaking, and moreover an approach that Goya’s stylistic innovations suggest he might appreciate in the movie re-make of his life.
These chronological inaccuracies involve the time frame and order of events and certain of Goya’s works. The film tells us the opening scene occurs in 1792, with those first monks handling some of the Caprichos prints as well as some from The Disasters. Perhaps a year’s worth of action occurs and there’s a break, resuming “15 years later” with the French invasion of 1808, the opening of prisons, and Lorenzo’s return as a prosecutor for the French occupation – spouting Voltaire on human rights – with a French wardrobe, wife and three kids in tow. After what should be another break but does not seem so on-screen, the English invade (1813), reinstating the Spanish royals and Inquisition (1814), and Lorenzo dies gruesomely by garrote. Forman also fudges the onset of Goya’s deafness and migraines a bit later than 1792 and ignores his wife and son completely.
But what really rankles some viewers is that Forman plucks images from all over Goya’s career and inserts them in the story. Goya didn’t make the Caprichos until 1799, nor even start The Disasters until 1810, and the latter series wasn’t published until 1863.
We have the idea that bio-pics should handle basic facts literally, as if history happens in a straight line. Suppose we are free to choose from an artist’s over-all work and illustrate crucial junctures retrospectively? Drawing on the meaning of a whole body of work offers a different order of accuracy and truth – one that’s analogous to Goya’s shedding of stylistic and compositional conventions to convey the extremity of his times, an era when the Inquisition’s methods mock truth.
When Goya sees Alicia strolling that park, he’s stopped in his tracks by sheer visual self-evidence. Watching Goya’s Ghosts after an afternoon with The Disasters is also full of gripping serial déjà vu. No matter what else Goya’s Ghosts may be, Forman has thoroughly steeped his movie in The Disasters (and for all I know, a host of other Goya work). He sets up his shots in scene after scene so that, for a fleeting instant, some image from those plates congeals on-screen, echoing the grouping of bodies, a fallen horse, gang rapes, dismemberments, executions, the elaborate garrote machine, the slant of certain shadows and arches, even the distinctive face of one figure (whose look-alike shows up on-screen as Goya’s sign language interpreter) and the peculiar angle from which we see Lorenzo’s body taken down, piled on a cart and hauled away. It’s a breath-taking visual achievement – and an unusually demanding one for audiences. You don’t have to know Goya’s work to watch this movie, but the movie will send you to the work and back again.
This visual emphasis puts the performances in some context. Skarsgård’s Goya is not too passive – a ghost himself, one impatient reviewer says – but a man of retiring temperament engaged in multiple deadly struggles to keep his footing. For much of the film, Bardem’s Lorenzo does over-power him, and this provides a visceral screen experience of the long-gestating impulse to resist that informs art and uprisings alike. When Goya springs at Lorenzo, he’s as surprised as the rest of us. But we all believe it.
This review appeared today in Stylusmagazine.com.