Milos Forman's "Goya's Ghosts" is the kind of ambitious historical film that doesn't often get made anymore. It's about Spain during the waning era of the Inquisition and the advent of the French Revolution and features only peripherally the great Spanish painter.
The central protagonist is Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), who believes Christianity is being diluted by the laxness of the Inquisition. He favors restoring its strictures, although, with all the tortures in dungeons on display, things already looked pretty strict to me.
Lorenzo is supposed to be a conflicted soul who elicits our sympathy. When Ines (Natalie Portman), a Spanish girl who poses for Goya, is imprisoned on spurious charges, her wealthy family entreats Lorenzo to rescue her. Not only does he fail to help, he gets her pregnant.
Forman and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere want to show how living in a totalitarian nightmare can distend a principled man. But Lorenzo never comes across as deserving of reclamation. He's an opportunist, cloaked in false pieties. He's pathetic, not tragic.
And Goya (Stellan Skarsgård), whose artistry made indelible the ferociousness of his time, comes across as not much more than a royal lackey – an innocent bystander in the bloody passing parade. Even allowing for the fact that artistic genius is near impossible to portray convincingly in the movies, the characterization is a major letdown.
Portman is saddled with the worst role. Ines spends much of her screen time acting blighted and deranged, a condition not improved by Portman's penchant for stage theatrics. Glassy eyed and smudged with grease paint, her lower jaw hanging open and askew, she seems to be auditioning for a road show production of "Marat/Sade."
Czechoslovakia-born Forman has lived through both communism and Nazism and knows a thing or three about repressive regimes. But, sadly, little of his life experience comes through in "Goya's Ghosts." Though much blood is shed, the film is bloodless. Grade: C–
• Rated R for violence, disturbing images, some sexual content, and nudity.