Looked at from afar, history can seem like merely a series of coincidences, often unfortunate ones. That view prevails in Milos Forman's new film, "Goya's Ghosts," which surveys the bad luck of colliding figures and events rather than choosing a single protagonist to champion.
Even Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgard), the conscience of the film, does not emerge as innocent, as we witness his deeds and struggles along with a handful of contemporaries in Spain during the French Revolution.
Goya, the king's painter who was later considered to be the last master and the first modernist, is given patrons in the film that will best show the strata of a society that seems destined to crumble. These include Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), a member of the Spanish Inquisition, King Carlos IV of Spain (Randy Quaid) and Tomas, a wealthy merchant whose daughter Inés (Natalie Portman) becomes trapped in the others' struggles for supremacy.
"Ghosts" is an overall engrossing if painful portrayal of a period not often staged in our time, with memorable performances lead by Bardem and Portman. Even Quaid, who could appear to be a dreadful casting mistake, comes off well. (One famous quip about the king's family, as painted by Goya, is that they looked like "the corner baker and his wife after they won the lottery," a sentiment that Quaid suits perfectly.)
There is a feeling, though, that director Forman and his co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière sometimes veer from the intention of the artist in their rendering of his depictions of common suffering. "Ghosts" frequently aims to shock, to show how terrible times could be. Goya's work, especially "The Disasters of War" series often mirrored in scenes from the film, offers a more intense sympathy, striving to inflame pity, and not just terror.
If there's one thread the film follows, it is the story of Portman's Inés, who emerges from the ordeal broken in body and mind, but all the more alive in spirit. (R)