Thursday, May 03, 2007

GOYA'S GHOSTS - less than the sum of its parts

Another day, another Pantheon director disappoints. Today it's the director of the truly great films ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, AMADEUS, MAN IN THE MOON and THE PEOPLE VERSUS LARRY FLYNT - Milos Forman. In each of these films, Forman brought a great character from history or fiction to life. The enigmas were explored and memorable cinema was created. In GOYA'S GHOSTS we have neither. Indeed, Goya remains a rather shadowy and frustrating character - naive, flaky, rather on the outskirts of the great events he is witness to. If the brutality of the Spanish inquisition, Napoleonic invasion of Spain and subsequent English invasion find their way into his work, we do not feel this emotional experience through the film. Indeed, were it not for the brutal sketches shown in the opening credits, one might be left wondering what all the fuss was about. What we are left with is a sort of watered down version of the dilemma of the artist, as shown to devestating effect in AMADEUS. We see Goya crawl to Royal patrons while simulateneously depicted them with unflattering truthfulness. But Forman handles this theme with a heavy-hand, self-consciously spoofing the relationship between Mozart and Joseph II in AMADEUS.

With Stellan Skarsgard's Goya an insubstantial and peripheral figure, where does the movie find its intellectual and emotional centre? The aim is surely to situate it in the relationship between Natalie Portman's Ines and Javier Bardem's Brother Lorenzo. Ines is a victim of the Spanish Inquisition and Lorenzo takes advantage of her in prison. Fifteen years later he has quite forgotten her in his success as a Napoleonic bureaucrat. When Goya drags in the now quite physically and emotionally disfigured Ines, Lorenzo packs her off to an asylum and tries to pack his illegitimate and politically embarassing daughter (also played by Portman) to America. This plot has more than a little in common with the Villefort plot in The Count of Monte Cristo.

I found this storyline rather unsatisfying. It is too fractured and pushed around by the political turmoil in the foreground and the frantic covering of so much thematic material. First we have the venality of the Church. Then the battle between science and religion. Religious fundamentalists are clearly bad. Torture is even worse - and the political allegory with Abu Ghraib is obvious. The invading Napoleonic troops are promised that the Spaniards will greet them with cheers and embrace freedom. This is clealy meant to mirror the American mission in the Iraqi war. Political regimes tumble over one another - yesterday's leaders are today's prisoners. There doesn't seem to be much meaning in any of it - and perhaps that is Forman's point.

He did apologise for the Spanish Inquisition. He said it was far too inquisitive. Supposed to be the Spanish Casual Chat.Whatever Forman's ultimate vision for the film, it remains a confused and baggy monster whose many themes and plot machinations cannot disguise the lack of charismatic central character or tight plotting.

GOYA'S GHOSTS was released in Spain, Germany and Austria in 2006 and in the zech Republic, Poland, Israel, Sweden, Greece, Finland, the Netherlands, Serbia and Italy earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in Slovenia, Norway an d Belgium later in May. It opens in the US on July 20th, in France on July 25th and in Brazil on Septeber 7th.

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