"Goya's Ghosts" is Milos Forman's first film since 1999, but you sincerely wish it wasn't. A logy, rambling period piece, it feels about as far away from the spirit of "Amadeus" as it's possible to get with wigs and britches. Focusing only incidentally on its title character, the new film wanders distractedly around 19th century Spain in search of a cohesive idea, or failing that, a through line, but it doesn't come up with much beyond the hard-to-dispute observation that power is a gateway to hypocrisy.
The movie begins during the reign of the doltish Charles IV (who indeed bore an uncanny resemblance to the perfectly cast Randy Quaid) and continues through the Napoleonic invasion and French occupation under Joseph Bonaparte, ending with Napoleon's defeat by the British. In the first half of the film, Goya is marginally involved in some Inquisition intrigue involving Natalie Portman's naked torture and subsequent fondling by a priest. Timely as the themes are, they have little to do with Goya except as they concern his role as a well-connected go-between.
Played by Stellan Skarsgård, the great Spanish painter not only remains a passive bystander in his own story, but a credulous dupe besides. It's hard to square this image of a genial but definitely slow-on-the-uptake Goya with his work. Considered to be the last Old Master and one of the first modernists, Goya's work was provocative to the point of being subversive and often so dark as to border on the macabre. His painting of the family of Charles IV was so gleefully tactless it was later described by the French critic Théophile Gautier as looking like a portrait of "the corner baker and his wife after they won the lottery."
Forman's Goya paints with the same brutal frankness but displays none of it in life. When Inez Bilbatua (Portman), the daughter of his friend and patron, the wealthy merchant Tomás de Bilbatua (José Luis Gomez), is summoned by the Holy Office after refusing a bite of glazed suckling pig in a tavern (the Inquisitors accuse her of "Judaizing"), Goya half-heartedly agrees to help and comes to regret it. Meanwhile, Bilbatua's own efforts to save her are unsuccessful and the artist's muse that went in the dungeon comes out 15 years later gray-haired, dirt-caked and sporting a broken jaw. She looks like Madame Lafarge after a bar fight.
The priest that got her into this mess in the first place, and then several more, is Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), who in the beginning of the film is seen lobbying the head inquisitor Father Gregorio (Michael Lonsdale) for the chance to revitalize the Inquisition for the Enlightenment era — Inquisition 2.0 — by the end of the film has become a Voltaire-quoting spreader of the revolution. Either way, he's a weasel, and Bardem, who looks like nothing if not a Minotaur, plays him with snaky finesse. He's even enough of a good sport to modify his Castilian accent into a nonspecific Mid-Atlantic mumble that it winds up making him sound like a Hispanophone Madonna.
It's a minor detail, but it plagues the movie as a whole. Inquisitors with English accents denounce "Goyer," a little Spanish Maja with an American accent wrinkles her nose at the roast pig in the manner of a Palos Verdes teenager on vacation in Segovia. Only the extras sound incongruously like locals — and why bother, at that point?
Lavish production and wardrobe design, as well as beautiful cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe make "Goya's Ghosts" lovely to look at, but as a portrait of the artist, the movie is a letdown.
The biggest ghost in the movie is Goya himself.
"Goya's Ghosts." MPAA rating: R for violence, disturbing images, some sexual content and nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. At selected theaters.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times