As Monty Python aficionados are always keen to point out in high-pitched voices, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition. Likewise, no one expects it to be dull, what with all its brutal torture, violent religious oppression and stomach-turning array of pointy painmakers.
Dull, sadly, is the charge levelled at Goya’s Ghosts, the first movie this decade from Milos Forman, the much-gonged maestro behind One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. Set during the explosive political and religious upheaval of the late 18th century, it somehow fails to ignite in any way.
Stellan Skarsgård plays the (real-life) great painter Francisco Goya, whose cosy existence is royally buggered when his muse Inés (Natalie Portman, completely lost in an underwritten role) is imprisoned and tortured by Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), the Spanish Inquisition’s chief firebrand and another of Goya’s artistic subjects. Inés finds herself banged up as a heretic just as Lorenzo – who is captivated by her – begins to doubt his calling. Cut to 15 years later, when the three encounter each other again under very different, but equally difficult circumstances, as Napoleon Bonaparte forcibly introduces a bit of the French Revolution to his Spanish neighbours. Regardless of the film’s title, it’s Bardem’s Lorenzo who’s really in the spotlight, dripping with the arrogance of the self-deluded zealot. Overall, he may be just too cold and powerful to garner any real sympathy, but the sequence where he gets a taste of his own medicine is one of the movies’ few flashes of real tension.
Alas, whatever momentum is built up is quickly punctured once the plot jumps forward in time to the revolution, an over-ambitious structure pulling the movie way out of focus. That said, as you’d expect from a Forman film, the visuals are handled with aplomb, the cinematography having an evocative, earthy feel to it and the director even managing to weave in Holocaust and Cold War imagery lifted from his Czech childhood under the Nazis and Communists for more recent resonance.
But that aside, there’s little to really care about. While Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus cranked themselves into emotional top gear, Goya’s Ghosts never gets out of neutral, a fact hammered home by the generous use of Goya’s paintings in the movie: passionate, incisive and angry, they’re everything Forman’s comeback movie isn’t. A downbeat plodder fully deserving of the thumbscrew treatment.