Milos Foreman goes astray with Goya’s Ghosts, a beautiful disaster of a period picture that weaves its preposterous story around Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgård) during the Spanish Inquisition and Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. In 1792 Madrid, Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) offers sham smiles while convincing his Inquisition-loving Church brethren to return to the “old ways,” which means torturing any and all heretics by “putting them to the Question,” a euphemism for hanging people from hands that are tied behind their backs. When Ines (Natalie Portman), the daughter of a wealthy businessman and Goya’s favorite muse, is imprisoned for admitting under duress to being a Jew—a charge leveled because she refused pork at the local tavern—her father invites Lorenzo over for dinner and, in the most stunningly ludicrous scene in a film chockablock with them, proceeds to prove that torture doesn’t elicit truthful confessions by stringing the priest up until he agrees to sign a paper saying he’s a monkey.
Foreman undoubtedly wants this theme, as well as the unjustness of France’s occupation of a foreign land, to have contemporary reverberations, but his film segues so quickly from the intriguingly weird to the tediously laughable that what resounds most vigorously is the silliness of Bardem’s hushed, lilting voice and the implausibility of his character’s development, which involves raping the captive Ines, going into hiding because of his monkey-business blasphemy, and then reemerging 15 years later as a blind zealot—not for the church, but for the French Revolution. While Bardem does his best with unbelievable material (which, alas, still isn’t very good), a miscast Skarsgård is adorned with a weird prosthetic nose and then largely confined to the background. It’s a position intended to reflect the artist’s role as cultural/political witness, yet one which instead simply offers the filmmakers a way to sidestep investigating the complex inspirations and motivations of their fascinating, controversial titular painter.
Goya’s Ghosts affects an air of credibility and stateliness via its meticulous production design and Javier Aguirresarobe’s extravagant cinematography. Such pretension, however, clashes unpleasantly with the imprudent decision to have its cast speak in their native voices, a distracting aesthetic tack that results in a U.N.-like mishmash of diverse accents. And ultimately, its unwarranted posturing as an epic piece of historical fiction merely compounds the tedium of its simpleminded melodrama, full of ever-more improbable plot revelations, a violin recital by the out-of-place Randy Quaid as buffoonish King Carlos IV, and Portman in a double-your-goofiness performance as both Ines and her physically identical daughter Alicia, the former role requiring her to don sickly make-up and act stone-cold cuckoo and the latter primarily necessitating a bit of whorish cosmetics and some seriously comical fake teeth.