Review: 'Goya’s Ghosts' a dull, muddled paint-by-number

Francisco Goya, the Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolution, and bits of the battlefield and the asylum — potentially vital ingredients, all — add up to a dreary, fuzzy botch in “Goya’s Ghosts,” Milos Forman’s big flat Iberian costume saga.

Blame a muddled screenplay, followed by wrongheaded casting, for the sorry fizzle that this artist biopic, history lesson, and period melodrama is.

Set initially in the dark climes of 1792 Spain, the drama uses the presence of Goya (Stellan Skarsgard), painter of kings and common folk, to link two fictitious characters he’s painting. Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), a slippery Spanish Inquisition biggie, imposes a crackdown on public behavior, which yields the arrest of Goya’s muse, Ines (Natalie Portman), on charges of practicing Judaism (she refused a pork dish).

Under torture, Ines tells Inquisitors what they want to hear. While she’s imprisoned, Lorenzo, enlisted by Goya to help Ines, ends up raping her.

Fifteen years later we have Lorenzo as a France-allied revolutionary and Ines as a scabby-faced madwoman searching for the daughter she had in prison. Goya, now deaf, assists Ines. Lorenzo, who fathered her child, machinates a cover-up.

Forman, whose credits include “Amadeus” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” hasn’t lost his penchant for lavish costumes, grotesque imagery, visual sweep and outrageous behavior, and the film contains some choice moments in this regard. At one such point, Ines’ father, to prove that torture victims will say anything, gets Lorenzo to confess to being the offspring of monkeys.

You know the film’s sinking, however, when you start welcoming such implausibilities just because they’re colorful. As the focus shifts away from Goya and church politics and concentrates on Ines’ daughter (also Portman) — who has lots of screen time but nothing interesting to say — the film becomes a swollen, muddled dud.

Offering little in the way of a dramatic thrust or a point, the screenplay, by Forman and Jean-Claude Carriere, dooms the movie. Missing is the free-spirited protagonist — Mozart, McMurphy, Larry Flynt — whose personality kept things charged and meaningful in earlier Forman films. All three central characters are hazily defined and thus hazily acted. The potentially fascinating Goya becomes a background presence. Played by a Swede, he lacks the essential element of a Spanish soul.

Michael Lonsdale, not bad as the chief Inquisitor, and Randy Quaid as the Spanish king —oh, the international casting! — also figure into things.

Goya’s Ghosts **

Starring Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, Michael Lonsdale

Written by Milos Forman, Jean-Claude Carriere

Directed by Milos Forman

Rated R

Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes

artsentertainmentOther Arts

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