With the help of his longtime Oscar-winning producer collaborator Saul Zaentz (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus) and legendary screenwriter and Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, two-time Oscar-winning director Milos Forman again leverages his European roots and sensibilities with American moviemaking craftsmanship and commercial savvy to deliver an energized imagining of Spanish painter Goya and his unstable era.
Playing loosey-goosey with history, Goya's Ghosts is a lavish what-if but a highly engaging one that should ensnare art-house audiences not too fussy about facts and trashy narrative detours. The film boasts a grand cast and other Oscar-blessed collaborators like production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein and costume designer Yvonne Blake.
Doing some imaginative puppetry, Forman and Carriere have set the good-natured apolitical artist Goya (Stellan Skarsgård) in the middle of some nasty intrigue and historic changes. Goya is a court painter tight with superficial King Carlos IV (Randy Quaid), a hunting buff, and unattractive queen Maria Luisa (Blanca Portillo), whom Goya paints a bit too accurately.
But it's one of his civilian models, the beautiful Inés (Natalie Portman), who entangles Goya when she falls victim to the Inquisition. Grand Inquisitor Father Gregorio (Michael Lonsdale) and his crew have wrongly accused Inés of being Jewish (or having the vibe), as one of their spies has spotted her at a tavern being suspiciously averse to pork. (Horrors!) Inés is abducted, incarcerated and tortured, moving her dad Tomás Bilbatúa (José Luis Gómez), a wealthy merchant who gives money to the Church, to approach Goya for help.
But it is Brother Lorenzo (Oscar nominee Javier Bardem), a fanatical Church leader, who promises Tomás that he will try to do something. Instead, he pays several visits to Inés in her horrific dungeon and does what a hormonally ravaged, sexually deprived, amoral brother would do.
Inés gets pregnant, but bigger changes are afoot outside dungeon walls. Napoleon is overrunning Europe, with Spain next in his sights. The French invader and his men soon take charge and Father Gregorio and his band of tormenting men are, uh, history. Brother Lorenzo is another story, as he's the Grand Adapter. He has the savvy to flee to France to get enlightened. He first wins favor with the Emperor's regime, next with the British who eliminate Napoleon.
Released from her dungeon, Inés, haggard and unrecognizable, goes to Goya for help as her family has been wiped out. Above all, she wants to recover her daughter Alicia (also Portman), who had been taken from her and is now a teen.
Goya, via movie magic, manages to find Alicia, who is a courtesan working Madrid's better parks. The British defeat Napoleon and spur further changes in Spain. Will Goya succeed in uniting mother and daughter? Will daughter find salvation in the arms of a British officer? And will Lorenzo remain the prosperous bourgeois family man he has become or be forced by the reinstated Church to repent or die?
Goya's Ghosts deliciously answers these questions, as flashy fiction trumps frumpy history. This is the juiciest of soap operas, mixing sex, celebrity, scandal and power into a spicy stew of colorful characters and historical speculation.
Shot on a number of Spanish locations, prettied up with design evoking the period, and "uglied" up with the crimes of the Inquisition and ravages of wars, Goya's Ghosts is a guilty escapist pleasure of pleasing visuals, bad behavior and wise casting and conceptualization.
In Quaid's King Carlos, we have that favorite breed of historic monarch--foppish and piggish. In Bardem's Brother Lorenzo, we have our favorite kind of historic religious power player--decadent and corrupt. And Goya, as Skarsgård so convincingly depicts him here, does a whole lot better than Leni Riefenstahl in evincing his artist's neutrality and cluelessness amidst so much evil and social injustice.
Above all, Forman and his team give us a fun ride through a slice of imagined history. (Perhaps the most glaring of the expropriations is bringing the worst of the Inquisition of earlier centuries into the late 1700s.) But Forman and Carriere do a great job of cherry-picking history for their own needs. And, maybe, ours.