My favorite artist, in the entire history of Western culture, is Francisco de Goya, who lived in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries in Spain (except for the last few years of his life when he lived in self-imposed exile in Bordeaux, France, just over the border from Spain). A decade ago, I was literally awe-struck into long periods of silence as I stared at some of his powerful paintings in the Prado Museum in Madrid. Here was a guy who took the violent, political turmoil around him and turned it into raw, burning images in an outcry against the inhumanity of his age. I must have stared at “Saturn Devouring a Child,” perhaps the most wretched of his “Black Paintings,” for nearly a half hour, unable to walk away, tortured by the question of what could have been going through the mind of a man who could paint that. How many other artists can reach through the centuries, long after their death, and grab hold of a viewer to share something about their time so passionately?
No doubt, no doubt, Goya was a major figure in the history of art; but in the political history of Spain, he was only a minor character. Yet, as the court painter to both King Carlos IV and his son King Ferdinand VII, and friend to many great writers, intellectuals, and others of political and cultural influence, he had a front-row seat to much of the brutal history of his time—from court intrigue to the Inquisition to the French invasion to the despotic tyranny which led to his eventual exile.
And this view, Goya as witness, is the basis for “Goya’s Ghosts,” the latest film by director Milos Forman, which was released last year and is now available on DVD. Forman, incidentally, directed “Amadeus,” one of my five favorite films of all time; so you can imagine my excitement when I learned he would be helming a movie about my favorite artist.
Yet, interestingly, this movie is not really about Goya (played excellently by Stellan Skarsgård), his life, or his art; rather it concerns a fictional event seen through his eyes, on the sidelines. One of his models (Natalie Portman) who is also the daughter of a patron (José Luis Gómez) is falsely accused of being secretly Jewish, tortured and imprisoned by the Inquisition, and then raped, in prison, by another one of his patrons, a priest (Javier Bardem). Although these specific characters are fictional, these types of incidents were common enough that it’s the kind of story that could have happened. It tells us much about this period of Spanish history.
Yet even though Goya is the central character of the film—he acts as the middleman, connecting all of these characters—it isn’t really his story. When all is said and done, we’ve learned very little about Goya’s personal life or the nature of art. The Spanish film “Goya in Bordeaux,” by Carlos Saura, which portrays Goya as an old man in exile looking back on his life, is a much better film for that. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that Goya is even less important to “Goya’s Ghosts” than Mozart was to “Amadeus,” in which Mozart wasn’t the main character, either.
(By the way, fans of “Amadeus” might be pleased to note that “Goya’s Ghosts” is set—at least the first half—at the same time as “Amadeus.” And there even is a brief reference to Mozart in a scene where Carlos IV [Randy Quaid] plays a violin.)
The fact that the title character isn’t the main character isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Despite the lack of focus on Goya’s art (even though we do catch many glimpses of his masterpieces) or his life story (even though a few details emerge such as his habit of painting at nighttime while wearing a hat with candles on it, or his going deaf in later years), I think the movie does justice to him. I believe, in the end, the greatest legacy of Goya’s life was not so much about who he was, but rather the history he saw and then interpreted for posterity.
And this movie sure shows us some horrible history. History, however, that we really should take note of because, in many ways, it is like our own time.
For example, we see, in the Inquisition, the dangerous corrupting power of fundamentalist religion. We see a debate about how useful—or useless—torture can be. We see how long-term imprisonment, without trial, can play havoc with one’s sanity, even if one is innocent. We see Joseph Bonaparte (the brother to Napoleon who briefly ruled Spain) promising his troops, just before attacking, that they will be greeted by the Spanish people as liberators when, of course, history proved that the Spanish viewed the French as oppressive foreign occupiers despite their supposedly “enlightened” revolutionary ideas. And we see how political fortunes can quickly change with the blowing of the wind. Hmmm… Any of this sound contemporary?
As a work of art, as one should expect from Milos Forman, “Goya’s Ghosts” is great. All the elements of filmmaking—from the costumes to makeup to cinematography to music to lighting—are at their masterful best. All the main actors do exceptional jobs; and Javier Bardem, it could be argued, is even more impressive than he was in his Oscar winning performance in “No Country for Old Men.” And yet, somehow, despite all of this, the film seems to lack that strong emotional pull of “Amadeus,” which I’m forced to admit is a bit disappointing.
Of course, saying that “Goya’s Ghosts” isn’t as good as “Amadeus” is like saying the Rocky Mountains aren’t quite as spectacular as the Himalayas. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching.
The movie may not have taken me back to that same emotionally overwhelming place where I was when I was in the Prado Museum ten years ago staring at Goya’s works, but at least it could take me back to Spain, outside the museum, which is really more than I could ask for.
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