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Goya?s Ghosts: The Politics of Portraiture

Goya's Ghosts : The Politics of Portraiture

By Andi Rosenthal

Review of Goya's Ghosts . Directed by Milos Forman. Written by Milos Forman and Jean-Claude Carrière.

From the opening credits of director Milos Forman's Goya's Ghosts , during which the viewer is subjected to close-ups of Goya's depictions of war and torture, victimization and horror, one immediately senses the tension between art and commerce, the intersection of history and eyewitness, and the fateful interplay of religion and politics--all themes that Goya's Ghosts explores.

The year is 1792. It is 300 years since the inception of the Spanish Inquisition, known in Catholic Spain as the Holy Office. One of the Office's emerging leaders, Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), is in favor of restoring the original tenets of the Inquisition to an increasingly lenient Church. His contagious fervor is a direct counterpoint to the emerging doctrines of logic, reason, and independence, all of which are causing political and social upheaval in the border country of France and across the sea, where the American Revolution has just concluded. Brother Lorenzo orders the young priests of the Holy Office to be on the lookout for signs of Jewish practice--everything from checking for circumcised men in the public bathhouses to watching to see if patrons observe kosher dietary laws in the local taverns.

Natalie Portman plays a woman accused of being a "Judaizer" during the waning days of the Spanish Inquisition in Milos Forman's new film Goya's Ghosts. Photo courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films.

This order leads a pair of priests to witness young Ines Bilbatua (Natalie Portman), the daughter of a prominent Catholic family, declining to eat pork during a lively dinner among friends and family members. The next morning, Ines is summoned to appear before the Holy Office, charged with being a "Judaizer"--one who practices Jewish rituals in secret. A faithful Catholic, Ines confesses to nothing more than disliking pork, but she is eventually "put to the question"--a Church euphemism for "being tortured into confessing."

Days later, Ines' father, who had escorted her to appear before the Holy Office but hasn't seen or heard from her since, becomes desperate to find out what has become of his daughter. Visiting the studio of his friend, the artist Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgard), he discovers a link between Ines and the Holy Office--the canvasses on display reveal that both Ines and Brother Lorenzo have been immortalized by the painter.

The artist brings Lorenzo and the Bilbatua family together to discuss a way to obtain Ines' freedom. When it is revealed, however, that not only has the tortured and imprisoned Ines confessed to being Jewish--despite the fact that she is not--but that there is also a Jewish ancestor in the family who converted to Christianity in 1624, they realize there is no hope for her release. In an effort to demonstrate how the rigors of torture can get any person to admit to anything, even if it is not true, the family tortures Brother Lorenzo into a comical, yet disturbing admission.

Upon his release Lorenzo appears before the Inquisition's Grand Confessor to plead for the girl's freedom. In spite of a large cash donation from the family, and the priest's plea for mercy, the Holy Office declines to release her, as doing so would cast doubt on their methods of obtaining confessions. Lorenzo, having just been "put to the question" himself, now doubts his faith, and befriends Ines in prison. When news of his confession under duress reaches the Holy Office, however, Lorenzo is disgraced and banned from the Church. Much to Goya's dismay, Lorenzo's portrait (unpaid for) is burned in the public square, and his name is cursed by the Church for all time to come.

Fifteen years later, Napoleon's army arrives to "liberate" the citizens of Spain from the dual vise of the royal family and the Catholic Church. The French Army believes that their arrival in Madrid will be greeted with joy and gratitude, but instead, the Spanish people tenuously cling to their religious and social traditions. Nonetheless, the doctrines of reason, logic and liberty prevail in the bloody battles for power, and the Holy Office is imprisoned and forced to stand trial for their crimes. Lorenzo, having fled to France where he studied the works of Rousseau and Voltaire, returns to Spain and prosecutes the Holy Office for having denied the Spanish people their liberty. After the perpetrators of the Inquisition are sentenced to death, their prisons are emptied and Ines, decayed in mind and body, is finally freed.

Goya, now deaf, depicts the horrors of war that have become an everyday occurrence in the streets of his hometown. He takes Ines in and attempts to help her find the daughter that she says she bore in prison. When he enlists the help of his old friend Lorenzo, he is shocked to find that the former priest is the father of Ines' daughter Alicia (also played by Portman), who was originally sent to a convent orphanage, but is now 15 years old and an edgy, tough prostitute in Madrid's garden district.

Javier Bardem plays the inquisitor who first torments, then befriends, Portman's character.

Though director Forman, himself the son of a Jewish father, takes the film through many perilous twists and turns of the changing political climate, his sense of the constant and pervasive undertone of the Church's power is unrelenting. When the Church is again restored to power, Lorenzo meets a fitting end for one whose faith has been turned away by their dark methods. Ines, having descended into madness, becomes the moral casualty of the story, demonstrating that while her faith may have survived torture, her confession, along with her Jewish heritage, made the practice of her faith irrelevant to the perpetrators of the Inquisition.

In spite of an excellent performance by Bardem, and an atypically uneven one by Portman, the story, while certainly engrossing, feels disjointed at times. It is not helped by the hard cuts from scene to scene or the film's sudden, inexplicable jump from 1792 to 1807. At times, even Goya's presence seems superfluous, as if his character is merely a plot device to push the action along. The pace at which coincidences occur in the film makes it difficult for the viewer to take them seriously, especially when the motives of the characters are unclear.

For students of Jewish history, the interplay of religious symbolism provides a fascinating coda to the story. Lorenzo's costumes, in particular, provide clues to his fate: the opening scenes show him as the only priest who covers his head, and in his final scene, his telltale yellow garb and pointed cap matches that of other "heretics" prosecuted by the Holy Office. The penultimate scene is also a haunting foreshadowing of Nazi Germany, demonstrated by the king's appearance on the balcony, while a marching band and colorful banners joyfully proclaim the death of a non-believer.

With its subtle allusions to the war in Iraq, its social commentary on the viral nature of public opinion and the echoes of past persecutions, when all is said and done, the banners are taken down and the marching band packs up their instruments and goes home, what Goya's Ghosts leaves the viewer with is an uneasy sense that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws.
Andi Rosenthal

Andi Rosenthal is a convert to Judaism, marketing director and freelance writer living in Larchmont, N.Y. She is a URJ Schindler Outreach Fellow and frequently lectures and teaches about issues relating to interfaith life. She also recently completed her first novel, The Bookseller's Sonnets.

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