The Reeler


July 15, 2007

Filling in the Blanks

Milos Forman on the persona-less personality of Goya’s Ghosts

"Whatever he felt was on the canvas, not in his words”: Stellan Skarsgård as Francisco Goya in Milos Forman's latest, Goya's Ghosts (Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films)

If the allure of the biopic subgenre of period films lies in the mystery at the heart of its famous subjects, then the motivations of artists are a point of particular fascination. The desire to fill in the holes and resolve the inconsistencies in our collective knowledge urges us to discover what made chimeras like Mozart or Beethoven the undisputed visionaries we know them as today. Since the critical and commercial success of his Amadeus, an adaptation of the award-winning play, director Milos Forman has made a considerable contribution to the controversial form of speculative fiction with portraits of controversial comedian Andy Kaufman (Man on the Moon), pornographer Larry Flynt (The People vs. Larry Flynt) and, most recently, court painter Francisco Goya in Goya’s Ghosts.

But Goya is different from Forman’s other subjects: His public personality cannot be so clearly linked to his art. Kaufman’s disdain for the shallowness of contemporary American culture and Flynt’s outrage with the hypocrisy of the Moral Majority were the source of provocation for both Kaufman’s performances and Flynt’s Hustler magazine respectively, but Goya was never so outspoken about the horrific atrocities committed by the Spanish Inquisition.

“Goya was never really defeated because he didn’t speak,” Forman said in a recent interview with The Reeler. “From the dramatic point of view, Goya was just observing. We know nothing of his philosophy or his political ideas because he was very careful not to provoke anybody that might disturb his work. Although he was very famous in his time, if he had made a public expression of his thoughts, we wouldn’t have his paintings today. He knew that he had to shut up and paint and whatever he felt was on the canvas, not in his words.”

Beginning in the late 18th century, Goya’s Ghosts (opening Friday in New York) showcases the tumult Madrid experienced as the tyrannical Inquisition was temporarily overthrown by the equally brutal French Revolutionaries. The upheaval inspired Goya’s famous Caprichos paintings, a series that encapsulated the fear, chaos and hypocrisy of the city’s bloody liberators (accompanied by the artist's stinging comment, “The sleep of reason produces monsters.”) Ghosts centers on the interplay between Goya (Stellan Skarsgård), Ines (Natalie Portman) -- a fictional composite who comes to represent Goya’s muse -- and Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), the spirit of the illusory change of the period. After Ines is condemned as a "Judaiser" by the Inquisition and sentenced to an indefinite period of imprisonment, she encounters Lorenzo; the two become reluctantly bound to each other after an off-screen tryst. Goya slowly unravels the link between the two after Ines is forgotten in the panic and celebration that the French armies' arrival provokes.

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Goya's subsequent encounters with the pair leads him towards reconciling his understanding of their relationship in a manner Forman portrays like their sexual encounter: just outside the film's events. Forman's biopics have always played with this ambiguity, selectively amplifying and downplaying certain moments of his characters' stories for dramatic effect. In The People vs. Larry Flynt, the tragic death of Flynt's wife is depicted almost operatically; the score crescendoes at the height of Flynt's unsuccessful attempts to revive his muse. In Man on the Moon, Andy Kaufman's death, while no less melodramatic, is left open-ended as we watch a holistic healer wring what Kaufman's close friend Bob Zmuda revealed in his memoirs to have been a chicken liver in a mysterious ritual that appears to kill the comedian -- or his will to live, depending on your interpretation. Even in Amadeus, Forman never explicitly posits that Salieri, the film’s narrator and Mozart’s rival, secretly commissioned Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor (although F. Murray Abraham voices both Salieri and the masked figure that haunted Mozart until his death).

Goya’s Ghosts stands apart in that Forman primarily exaggerates the world the artist lives in, not the artist’s personal life. Because of the mysterious nature of Goya's past, Goya’s personal struggles -- especially his sudden loss of hearing -- take a back seat to Forman’s suppositions of the real-life events that surrounded and inspired Goya’s work. The artist's absence from a pivotal scene when Lorenzo is tortured by Ines' father is particularly striking; it's unclear whether or not this is the moment Goya seeks throughout the film as Lorenzo's admission of guilt is overshadowed by his joining the French in persecuting his former fellow Inquisition members. The scene, like many of his films, takes advantage of the ambiguity of the character, forcing the audience to confront who these revolutionary artists-cum-heretics really were. "It makes for good drama," Forman told me. "And I love good drama."

The scene represents more than a showpiece, however. It reminds viewers of the artist's limitations in attempting to preserve real life through one’s imagination. Forman never intended his films to be seen as a portrait of the life of artists as they were but rather as they might have been. “Real artists,” he said, “can give you images so real that you feel like you’re hearing a beautiful truth and that’s the calling of artists over the centuries because they have been the vanguards of progress, of new ideas and new thoughts that undermine the status quo.”

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