Goya’s Ghosts begins and ends with images of prints etched by the greatest Spanish artist between Velasquez and Picasso. However, this is not the kind of biopic that does for Francisco Goya what The Agony and the Ecstasy did for Michelangelo and Lust for Life for Van Gogh. In fact, despite a vigorous performance by Stellan Skasgård, in Goya’s Ghosts it is Goya who is a spectral presence, observer more than actor. “I paint what I see,” he tells the subject of a portrait, and what he sees throughout the film is what we see — the panorama of a vicious, violent age. Goya is the official court painter for King Carlos IV, but he also works with beggars, thieves, and prostitutes. Revisiting the Europe of his 1984 triumph Amadeus, director Milos Forman uses Goya as a convenient device to record the follies and vices of Spain during a turbulent era of repression, revolution, and reaction. It is a distant mirror of our own time.
The film begins in 1792, as an ecclesiastical zealot called Brother Lorenzo (Bardem) is determined to root out the laxity of the Church. Instructing his spies to scour Madrid for hints of heresy, he revives the harshest methods of the Inquisition, the institution that terrorized Spain for four centuries. When a young woman named Inés (Portman) is spotted in a tavern declining to eat roast pig, prosecuting priests take that as evidence of religious atavism, reversion to the Jewish faith (which prohibits the eating of pork) that has been banned in Spain since 1492. Accused of being a secret “judaizer,” Inés, whose singular beauty tests Lorenzo’s vows of celibacy and inspires some of Goya’s most powerful painting, is tortured and left to rot in a dingy dungeon.
Forman, who left his native country after the emancipatory Prague Spring was crushed by Soviet tanks in August 1968, has said that Spain at the turn of the 19th century — a society tyrannized by the Inquisition, then the French, and later the British — resembled Czechoslovakia’s distress under successive Nazi and Communist regimes. But a scene in which a confession is extracted by stretching the suspect across a rack also evokes contemporary debates over the ethics and efficacy of torture. When, in order to prove that a victim will say anything to avoid extreme pain, an opponent forces an agent of the Inquisition to attest that he is a monkey, the setting could be Guantánamo instead of Madrid. And the ease with which Lorenzo changes uniforms while remaining an intolerant zealot (“There will be no liberty for the enemies of liberty,” the avenging priest turned political commissar declares shortly after switching sides) has recent parallels. So does obscurantist hostility to the Enlightenment.
Meticulous about historical detail, Forman has stated that authenticity demanded that the film be shot on location in Spain. So it is all the more incongruous that the characters speak in English, with motley accents imported by an international cast. Imagine a spaghetti Western in which Clint Eastwood speaks Italian with an American accent for an equivalent to the excruciating sound of Lorenzo speaking Spanish-tinted English. Even Randy Quaid’s language seems out of place; he plays Carlos IV as a foppish English gentleman. In one memorable scene, Carlos, a wretched musician, forces Goya to listen to him play one of his own violin pieces. Only a king can expect praise for something out of key. •