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Goya's Ghosts
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Not-Exactly-Mad About The Goya"
1 stars

On paper, “Goya’s Ghost” looks like the perfect antidote to the otherwise mindless multiplex offerings of Summer 2007. After all, it has a trio of splendid actors, a period storyline that offers up a heady brew of sex, politics and religious persecution that offers some uncanny parallels with contemporary events and a world-renowned, award-winning director who has consistently produced smart, thoughtful and highly entertaining films throughout his career. However, something must have gone terribly wrong on its journey from the page to the screen because the resulting film is perhaps the biggest and most mystifying waste of talent and subject matter since that misbegotten remake of “All The King’s Men” last fall. This is the kind of complete disaster that inspires more confusion from viewers than anger–how could this combination of elements possibly result in a film that clearly wants to be a powerful dramatic epic but which ends up playing like the old Harold Robbins’ potboiler “The Adventurers,” minus the lucid plotting.

Set in Spain, “Goya’s Ghosts” opens in 1792 as members of the Spanish Inquisition debate how to solve a problem like Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgard), the painter whose wild and terrifying artistic visions are becoming the rage throughout the world even as they are arousing scandal in his own country. The only one to come to Goya’s defense is the highly influential Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), a seemingly open-minded inquisitor who surprisingly sticks up for Goya’s artistic vision (possibly because he has already commissioned him to paint his portrait) even though it at times seems to mock the church. However, don’t think for a second that Lorenzo is one of those wishy-washy activist inquisitors you are always hearing about from the Fox town crier–while at a tavern, he sees the lovely Inez (Natalie Portman), whom he recognizes as one of Goya’s models, refuse to eat a plate of pork and has her brought in on the suspicion that she is a Jew. She insists that she isn’t a Jew–she just doesn’t like the other white meat–but after being “put to the question” (i.e. tortured), she confesses otherwise and is thrown in prison.

When Inez doesn’t return home, her well-to-do father (Jose Luis Gomez) begs Goya to plea to Lorenzo for her release but Goya insists that there is nothing that he can possibly do for her. Nevertheless, he brings Lorenzo to dinner with Inez’s family where Lorenzo cooly tells them that there is nothing that he can do for her since not only did she confess to practicing Jewish rituals, he has discovered that a distant family member was Jewish before converting to Catholicism. While Goya tries to steer the conversation to lighter topics, Inez’s father insists that her confession is worthless since it was made under duress and that people will say anything to avoid the pain of torture. Lorenzo disagrees and suggests that if one is truly innocent and right with God, He will deliver them from those agonies. In response to that, Inez’s father orders Lorenzo to sign a confession stating that he is a swine in human form sent to usurp the church from within and when he refuses, he himself is strung up to a home-made torture device until he finally caves and signs. When wind of this confession reaches the other members of the Inquisition, they demand Lorenzo’s arrest but by then, he has already fled for the hills.

Fifteen years later, revolution is in the air and Napoleon’s forces arrive to free the people of Spain from the religious tyranny of the Inquisition under the supervision of none other than the now-secular Lorenzo. This is accomplished by indiscriminate killings, nun rapes a-plenty and the immediate release of all Spanish prisoners. Among those freed is Inez, who now resembles a Miss Havisham from a high-school production of “Great Expectations,” who makes her way to see Goya, whose career has fallen on hard times and who is now stone deaf to boot. Inez confesses to him that while she was in prison, she had a daughter who was taken from her at birth and never heard from again. Feeling guilty that he wasn’t able to help Inez fifteen years earlier, Goya vows to help her discover what happened to this child and asks Lorenzo for assistance. It turns out that Lorenzo has some very good reasons for hoping that this reunion doesn’t occur and goes so far as to commit Inez to a community college production of “Marat Sade” while attempting to deport her prostitute daughter (Portman again) to America. Before all that can pass, there is another revolution, this time from the British, that seems to have occurred only so that all the main characters can come together in the same place at the same time without ever quite running into each other with the kind of near-miss flair one usually finds in a below-average “I Love Lucy” episode.

I have gone into some detail on the plot of “Goya’s Ghosts” just to illustrate one of the ways in which it goes so horribly, horribly wrong. For starters, considering just how little he fits into the proceedings, I am at a loss as to why he has even been included in the first place. The film has no interest in him either as an artist (what little discussion there is of his work is pretty much contained in the opening scenes) or as a person–he essentially functions here as little more than a party host who brings different people together so that they can play out their scenes while he hovers in the background. Oh wait, the single other fascinating tidbit of Goya’s life and work that the film wants to share is that he went deaf, a development that is put across by a.) having Goya enter virtually every scene in the second half screaming that he is deaf and b.) pairing him up with a wacky translator who proves to be as useful as Garrett Morris used to be when he would do repeat the top “Weekend Update” stories for the hard-of-hearing (though sadly without the same comedic timing).

Then again, considering the slipshod nature of the screenplay as a whole, I guess this shunting of Goya shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In the early scenes, we are presumably meant to look at the discussions of the futility of torture and the wrongness of religious persecution with an eye towards how those seemingly barbaric acts are still at play in our theoretically civilized society. The problem with that is that the film is so insistent one underlining these comparisons so that no one in the audience misses the point that anyone in the audience with two or more functioning brain cells (in other words, the kind of people who would presumably go to see a film about Goya and religious persecution instead of walking next door to catch “Transformers” again) are like to feel like the film is condescending to them. After a while, though, it pretty much gives that up and turns into an exceptionally cheesy soap opera, filled with not-so-dramatic revelations and last-minute rescues, that play so badly that they may well drive the remaining audience members next door to see “Transformers” again.

As baffling as all this may sound, the single most inexplicable thing about “Goya’s Ghosts” is that it was co-written and directed by Milos Forman, the acclaimed director of such films as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Ragtime,” “Amadeus” and “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” and someone who has never previously made an out-and-out bad movie before (even such lesser efforts as “Hair” and “Man on the Moon” were noble attempts that still contained more worthwhile elements than the better works of many other directors you could name). Considering the fact that the notion of rebellious characters suffering personally and/or professionally in their attempts to buck social, religious or artistic conformity has been a recurring in virtually all of his films, you would think that “Goya’s Ghosts” would be right up his alley but right from the start, he fumbles the ball and never comes close to regaining control. The story, as previously stated, is lame as can be, the characters exist only to be pushed around by the needs of that lame story and it even comes up short when it comes to basic filmmaking techniques–the story jerks along in fits and starts instead of flowing naturally and we are so distracted by such things as the shabby make-up or the jarring use of body doubles (sorry pervs but it is mighty obvious that the scenes involving a naked Inez being tortured are not Natalie Portman) that they, not the story or the characters, wind up dominating the scenes in which they appear. I don’t know how to explain the utter lack of directorial imagination that Forman displays here–maybe the eight-year break between his last film, 1999's “Man On The Moon,” and this one caused his skills to wither from disuse. If so, I can only hope that he either immediately goes to work on a new film now that he has shaken off the rust or takes an even longer break before setting foot on a soundstage again.

“Goya’s Ghosts” also wastes a talented cast who were no doubt lured in by Forman’s reputation without noticing how weak the project as a whole really was. Javier Bardem is never believable for a second as the craven and weak-willed Lorenzo–with his mumbling voice and perpetual hang-dog expression, he feels more like the third-runner-up in a Benicio del Toro impersonator contest. Natalie Portman once again proves that while she is indeed a strong a gifted actress, she has not yet mastered the ability to rise over substandard material–you can almost see the stricken look in her eyes as she is forced to perform in scenes so stumblebum in conception and execution that they make the stuff she worked with in the “Star Wars” films seem like genius by comparison. As Goya, Skarsgard is such a non-entity that he all but disappears from view even when he is the focus of the scene (except, of course, for the times when HE IS YELLING OUT LOUD THAT HE IS DEAF SO THAT WE REMEMBER THAT HEY, HIS CHARACTER IS DEAF).

And yet, the screwiest casting decision of “Goya’s Ghosts”–indeed, perhaps the screwiest decision in a film chock-full of screwy decisions–is the selection of the actor chosen to portray King Carlos IV. In a bewildering move, Forman decided that the best person to play this historical character was none other than Randy Quaid. Yes, the cousin of France’s Louis XVI is being essayed by the man better known for playing Cousin Eddie in the “National Lampoon’s Vacation” films. No doubt realizing the ludicrousness of his own casting, Quaid doesn’t bother to attempt any type of an accent and instead goes about playing the part looking and sounding exactly like Randy Quaid in an uncomfortable-looking outfit and wig. Luckily for him, the French Revolution hits about halfway through the film and when he gets the announcement, he simply walks out a side door and never returns. Perhaps he wandered off to try to see if he could get into a better historical drama (such as “Marie Antoinette”) and by that point, most of the remaining audience members will likely want to tag along with him.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16395&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/20/07 00:41:35
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User Comments

6/12/10 art A HISTORY LESSON!,that's all. 3 stars
8/12/07 Evelyn Fagin what a piece of slobbering mishmosh 1 stars
7/21/07 cm Movie is sequence of paintings tied together by Goya. 5 stars
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  20-Jul-2007 (R)
  DVD: 26-Feb-2008



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