Czechoslovakian-born writer-director Milos Forman has a diverse list of films to his credit over a four-decades-and-counting career.
But a theme may be emerging: “Goya’s Ghosts,” opening today, is his fourth based on the life of a real person.
The project involving the Spanish painter follows films about such disparate figures as one of the world’s greatest composers (1984’s “Amadeus”), the publisher of Hustler magazine (1996’s “The People vs. Larry Flynt”) and a rather unorthodox comedian (1999’s “Man on the Moon”).
“I find real people sometimes more fascinating than fiction,” the director says by telephone. “And to use them and to weave a fiction around them, sometimes makes fiction more true than the truth.”
The “truths” of “Goya’s Ghosts” involve more than just the movie’s exploration of the Spanish Inquisition. More recent events like the Holocaust and communism influenced the period film, while the director can’t help but think of the Iraq war on hearing a piece of dialogue he penned before it even happened.
The genial 75-year-old director, whose enthusiasm makes him sound like a man decades younger, says the first seeds of the film were planted 50 years ago, when he was a student in a communist country.
“I read a book about the Spanish Inquisition,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe that what I was reading about was happening the same way today in Czechoslovakia. People arrested, nobody knows why. They confessed to crimes you know they hadn’t committed and you know they did it because they didn’t want to be tortured any further.”
Mr. Forman was out of the country during the 1968 Soviet invasion and didn’t return. The director of Czech classics like “Loves of a Blonde” and “The Firemen’s Ball” became an American citizen in the 1970s, when he also won his first best director Oscar, for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Another followed for “Amadeus.”
But his experience under communism wasn’t even the director’s introduction to a modern-day Inquisition. He was orphaned when his parents died in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, which also left its mark on the film.
“It reflects my life experience,” Mr. Forman says. “My father was arrested by the Gestapo. He was distributing forbidden books — like Mark Twain, Shakespeare, and the Bible — to his students. Then he was taken away, and he had a trial and was acquitted.”
But someone stamped “undesirable” on his file, sealing his fate. His wife soon followed. “My mother, nobody knows why she was arrested,” he says. “It was like the 18th century in Spain.”
Midway through his film, Napoleon conquers Spain, abolishing the Inquisition. “He didn’t realize he planted the right seed, but in the wrong soil,” Mr. Forman argues. “The soil was not yet fertilized for those seeds to grow.”
The funds the French seized from the church had also been used to help the poor. Destitute Spaniards were practically clamoring for the Inquisition to return. “Who to blame?” Mr. Forman asks. “The liberator.”
“This is a tragedy,” the director declares. “Nobody believes me. The final screenplay for this film was finished months before events in Iraq, including the line which later I heard our vice president say, ‘We will be welcomed as liberators.’