The influence of painter Francisco Goya should not be underestimated in popular culture. So many modern concepts of witchcraft, sorcery and demonology can be attributed to Goya's paintings. The Spanish artist lived during turbulent times in European renaissance history. While the painter captured the madness of the times, Goya was a man who lived among the affluent and captured some of the beauty of the age. From two time Oscar Award winning director Milos Forman, "Goya's Ghosts" reveals the spirit of artist as only the director of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus" can.
"Goya's Ghosts" opens during the waning days of the Spanish Inquisition. Brother Lorenzo (Javier Barden) is given prosecution powers by the Holy Roman Catholic Church to hunt down heresy. Brother Lorenzo abuses his political power to court the teenage Ines (Natalie Portman). Using superstition, gossip and hearsay, Brother Lorenzo imprisons and tortures Ines. Being a friend of both Brother Lorenzo and the family of Ines, Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) is called upon to broker a deal. Despite the artist's best intentions, the meeting is a disaster and matters go from bad to worst.
With the fall of the monarchy and the rise of Napoleon, the politics of Spain reinvents new villains from the old ways. Lorenzo becomes an enlightened member of Napoleon's empire and Goya goes deaf. Despite his handicap, Goya is still an artist in demand and his services are sought by Lorenzo. While painting late one night, there is a knock on Goya's apartment door and the deaf painter reunites with a prematurely aged and ragged Ines. From the chronically abused Ines, Goya learns that she conceived a child with Lorenzo.
Despite such tragic story dimensions, "Goya's Ghosts" walks the fine line between humor and horror. Some of the biggest laughs come as a release from a previous scene of cruelty. Lorenzo is the prototype cad from gothic romances and much comedy is made at his expense. Goya earns some laughs with his inventiveness. Case in point, after Ines is tortured naked in the dark, the next scene features Goya painting at night with burning candles attached to his hat. While Goya's appearance is goofy, symbolically he sheds light upon better times ahead.
Most mainstream critics on Rotten Tomatoes have chided "Goya's Ghost," yet the local audience applauded the ending. There are some false moments and they relate to Natalie Portman's dual performances as Ines and her daughter. Portman does look like some of Goya's most gorgeous portraits, but her performance as the abused Ines lacks the depth of understanding. Perhaps with the correct coaching, Lindsey Lohan could have nailed the insane aspects of poor Ines.
Top billed Javier Barden portrays Lorenzo with all the smarmy charm of Bill Clinton. The character sweetly tells his benefactors what they want to hear and then performs despicable acts in the shadows. Best known as "Bootstrap Bill" from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, Stellan Skarsgard is the central character who is the passive observer of the times. Skarsgard plays Goya as a childlike innocent who shields his nobler intentions from public view.
"Goya's Ghosts" is not a biopic of a struggling artist. It is a film about events and situations that influence an artist and how one channels social madness into artistic expression. Under Milos Forman's confident guidance, the last scene of film makes peace with the conflicting elements of "Goya's Ghosts." "Goya's Ghosts" celebrates the unusual and should not be lost among the current glut of cartoons and violent movies on the big screen this week.