Goya’s Ghosts (2006; dir. Milos Forman) is a fanciful melodrama woven around the life of Francisco Goya during the late 18th- and early 19th centuries. Ranging over a fifteen-year span, from the reign of Carlos IV and the revival of the Inquisition to the Peninsular Wars, the film proposes that Goya’s muse was a young noblewoman named Ines (Natalie Portman). Her face, the film suggests, appears in numerous paintings and drawings and frescoes by Goya, played by the Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård. He refers to her as having the face of an angel. He also paints less angelic subjects, including satiric drawings and paints of Spanish nob les and members of the clergy, as well as more somber works. In the film he paints a large portrait of a Catholic priest named Lorenzo. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Ines is accused of heresy by the Catholic Church, tortured, and imprisoned for fifteen years. When she is released, she is close to insane and is obsessed with finding the infant daughter fathered by an archbishop, Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) while she was in prison—he approached her supposedly to offer consolation but one thing led to another. Both Ines and Lorenzo are fictional characters.
Goya’s Ghosts like some other films about artists wants to find the clue to the painter’s artistry in one story or fact: in this film, that clue is the fictional Ines. Such explanations seem to me in principle flawed. Goya himself in the film is portrayed as ambitious and often compromised—willing to work for or with whatever monarch is in power. When the family of Ines appeals to Goya to intercede with Lorenzo and to ask for their daughter’s release, he refuses to help. Even when Lorenzo, the center of evil in the film, returns from France after the French Revolution as a advocate of reason and power, Goya remains his friend. Lorenzo is the supreme Machiavellian of the film—willing to do anything that will improve his position. He has no conscience. He imprisons and sentences him to death the archbishop who banished him 15 years before. He’s responsible for Ines’s imprisonment—accusing her of heresy before the board of inquisitors. Her sin, it turns out, that her great grandfather had renounced his Jewish faith when he moved to Spain.
Is Goya in the film any less worthy of blame than Lorenzo? At least he has a conscience, and when he encounters the demented Ines after her release from prison, he tries to help her.
Goya’s paintings convey the chaotic change and depravities of the age in which he lived. The film conveys those meanings as well. Whatever the historical accuracy of the background against which the fictional story of Lorenzo and Goya and Ines takes place, one suspects that the chaos of his age, the unexplainable vicissitudes of change, genetics, and environment, are what made Goya an artist.
Inexplicably, almost unrecognizably, Randy Quaid portrays Carlos IV in this film.