Creating screen allegory out of history can be a tricky thing. There’s always the potential for the artist’s ideas to command the actual course of events and even basic truths, rather than the other way around. Or as an exceedingly wise critic colleague once observed of the biopic as historical fantasy, why go to such lengths to fabricate, when one can simply tell the truth.
Milos Forman’s curiously anachronistic and journalistically bombastic Goya’s Ghosts is a case in point. Co-scripted with famed Bunuel surrealist screen scribe Jean-Claude Carriere, this combo biopic and supposed historical epic shapes 18th century Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) as a primarily passive visual chronicler of his tumultuous times. Cast adrift in a whirlwind of traumatic events including the treacherous Inquisition, French and British invasions, crownings and dethronings and recycling of political and religious leaders falling recurrently in and out of favor, Goya is pretty much a sidelines kind of guy who just takes it all in. That is, until the film seems to be barely concerned with him at all. Establishing any grounded point of view in fact, seems to be troublesome for the characters and filmmakers alike.
And so attention steadily shifts from Goya to fanatical Catholic Church enforcer Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem). The subject of an unflattering portrait of himself being painted by Goya, Brother Lorenzo takes note, with seeming sexual disgust, of the lovely young muse Ines (Natalie Portman) gracing paintings in Goya’s studio. Spies sent out to do surveillance on the fetching wealthy merchant’s daughter at an inn, observe Ines to decline a dish of pork there. She’s promptly arrested, tortured and disappeared for over a decade as a ‘Judiazer,’ in other words a forbidden secretly practicing Jew. And neither the offered riches of her distraught family nor a bit of torture and discrediting confession that they apply to the vile cleric himself, can free their daughter.
In dizzying succession, Ines is raped repeatedly in the Church dungeon by the monk as he forces her to pray nude (and she ends up falling in love with her rapist, shame on Forman); Napoleon’s forces invade Spain, bearing the ideals of the French Revolution, suppressing the Inquisition and deposing and imprisoning the Church hierarchy; Brother Lorenzo forsakes his vows, marries and fathers children, and embraces revolutionary credo as a reinvented political zealot; and then the British invade, suppress the French revolutionary credo, and free and reinstall the reactionary Church hierarchy. As for Lorenzo, he’s then relegated to an object of simultaneous public scorn, revelry and mass entertainment in the main square, as execution by vise applied to the neck dispatches him speedily to the afterlife.
Getting back to tampering with history allegorically, well that elusive endeavor with a potential mind of its own can apparently take somewhat unforeseen turns. Though Forman intended all of the above and more as symbolic of Eastern Europe during the past century, while casting a negative light and cynical eye on the whole idea of revolution and mass uprising against injustice, such arranging of events by the numbers and according to one’s liking can backfire.
What does strike one’s senses and thought processes is that those nevertheless sumptuously crafted epic landscapes teeming with religious excesses and foreign invasions fraught with dubious promises held forth about liberty and liberation, conjure nothing less than the US incursion into Iraq, replacing bad with worse. Hence, the ultimate accidental insight provided by Goya’s Ghosts is that history may be recorded by the victors, but it is far less amenable to being smoothly scripted or orchestrated, either by foreign empires or filmmakers.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
DVD Features: Behind The Scenes Featurette.