Goya's Ghosts (2007)

Starring: Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgård, Randy Quaid, Jose Luis Gomez, Blanca Portillo

Directed by: Milos Forman

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Stellan Skarsgard as Goya in Milos Forman's Goya's Ghosts

Goya's Ghosts picks up where Milos Forman's multi-award winning Mozart masterpiece Amadeus leaves off. The year is 1792, and, while over in France the streets run red with the blood of revolution, Spain is still in thrall to the omnipotent Catholic Church and the dreaded Spanish Inquisition, at the head of which stands ruthless career monk Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem).

The chronicler of the vices and vicissitudes of these troubled times is Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgård), royal portrait painter and creator of dark and disturbing prints which echo grotesquely the spiritual turmoil of a time when religion and science, morality and logic, monarchy and republic came head to bloody head across western Europe. But this is not a biopic and, as befits an artist, Goya is not the central protagonist of the film but an observer and note-taker, a man whose unique and extraordinary talent can be hired for the right price, a genial servant who seeks to ingratiate himself with royalty but who, like Mozart, can't prevent his art from speaking the truth.

Natalie Portman as Ines in Goya's Ghosts

Now we all know that nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, least of all Goya's innocent young model Ines (Natalie Portman), the daughter of a wealthy merchant. When she is arrested, 'put to the question' (you'd have thought after V For Vendetta, Natalie Portman would have had enough of being tortured, but apparently not) and imprisoned as a heretic, Goya is reluctantly forced to intervene. Under pressure, he introduces her family to Brother Lorenzo – but who knew her father was so desperate to get his daughter back? Dot, dot, dot…

Jump 15 years and, in a series of stupendous set pieces which swiftly and horribly convey the sick and seamy side of warfare, we witness the invasion of Spain by Napoleon's forces. And at the heart of the new administration, who should we meet but Brother Lorenzo, now a diehard revolutionary? But the ghosts of his past are ready and waiting to haunt him, and Goya, now an old man and deaf as a post, is there to chart his downfall.

Javier Barden as Brother Lorenzo in Goya's Ghosts

With its sumptuous settings, exquisite attention to period detail and misshapen supporting cast of dwarves, crones and lunatics, Goya's Ghosts is in many ways reminiscent of Amadeus, and indeed the two films do share several themes: the uncomfortable, unnatural relationship between man and monarch (Randy Quaid's bumbling, bad violin-playing King Carlos IV is the perfect counterpart to Jeffrey Jones' well-meaning, wannabe culture vulture Emperor Josef), the use of art as the means to convey truth and the lengths men will go to gain power, with the machinations of Lorenzo almost matching the cruel manipulations of Mozart's arch rival Salieri.

Like F Murray Abraham, the brooding and sensual Javier Bardem is the real star of the show, despite a strong and sympathetic performance from Stellan Skarsgård and a credible effort from Natalie Portman, who may become a great actress yet.

Unlike Amadeus, however, Goya's Ghosts is not a flawless film: with so much history to cram in, the pace does seem a bit rushed at times, with characterisation occasionally sinking beneath the flood of epic events. And yet, just as the perfect balance of structure, beauty and emotion in Amadeus pays tribute to Mozart's music, so Goya's Ghosts offers us a portrait of the artist that is as gritty, glamorous and grotesque as the great man's paintings.

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