Focus evaporates in ‘Goya’s Ghosts’

Milos Forman directed one of the great films about the mystery of artistic creativity, 1984’s “Amadeus.”

But don’t go into “Goya’s Ghosts” expecting another biographical tour de force. Don’t go expecting to learn much about the titular artist at all.

In fact, it’s not clear what “Goya’s Ghosts” is about.

The film starts out promisingly. In 1792 Madrid, high-ranking priests examine prints made by painter Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgard). The court painter was in favor with the crown, but his new work had none of the dignified grandeur of his portraiture: Its disturbing imagery critiqued Spanish society. (Never mind that he didn’t actually start on the Caprichos prints until years later.)

The priests ask Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) why the rebel is painting his portrait. Lorenzo defends the artist and his connection with the poor and downtrodden. He suggests that a better way to stamp out heresy is to push harder with the Inquisition: They’ve only burned eight heretics in 50 years.

One of the new victims is a Goya model (Natalie Portman). Ines is suspected of secretly practicing Judaism after declining pork at a tavern. Her father, a rich patron of Goya and the church, begs for the artist’s help. He at first refuses, but reluctantly sets up a meeting with Lorenzo.

The result is a strangely genteel dinner party. “Was she put to the question?” Ines’ mother asks politely. Lorenzo nods. The admission through euphemism that her daughter was tortured has little effect on her.

The father is bewildered that Lorenzo believes a confession extracted through torture can be anything but false. So he puts Lorenzo to the question — and has him sign a letter stating he’s a monkey.

The gambit doesn’t get Ines out of jail, but it does lose Lorenzo his job — although not before he makes one last visit to the beautiful model, whom he can’t resist raping.

It’s an interesting setup. Goya was a fascinating figure, an official court painter who became something of a social reformer — and practically founded modern art in the process. His dilemma about his model might be a clever fictional way into the story of his development as both a man and an artist.

That’s not what “Goya’s Ghosts” explores, however. Halfway through, we’re suddenly told that it’s “15 years later” and that Napoleon is taking over Spain.

Lorenzo reappears, a convert to the ideas of the French Revolution. What follows is coincidence after coincidence reuniting the three principals. Ines shows up at Goya’s door, unaware of how long she spent in jail or when the child she bore was taken away from her. When Lorenzo discovers the child’s existence, he’ll stop at nothing to remove both mother and daughter.

Nothing in this film fits together, from the tangled threads of both plot and theme to the various accents of the American, Spanish and Swedish actors. Mr. Bardem (“Before Night Falls”) is suitably menacing as the pragmatic priest, but poor Mr. Skarsgard (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) is given very little to work with. Miss Portman’s decent work as the mentally unhinged Ines is overshadowed by the disastrous decision to have her play her own daughter.

Goya’s Ghosts” is no “Amadeus.” And with a scene set in a mental asylum, we’re reminded that it’s also not a “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” another thoughtful and funny film from a director who’s done much better than this.

**

TITLE: “Goya’s Ghosts”

RATING: R (violence, disturbing images, some sexual content and nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Milos Forman. Written by Mr. Forman and Jean-Claude Carriere.

RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes

WEB SITE: www.goyasghoststhefilm.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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