Goya’s Ghosts

I don’t know how much of “Goya’s Ghosts” is true, or if any of it is. Francisco Goya really was a Spanish painter, obviously, and there really was a Spanish Inquisition (which, contrary to what you may have heard, everyone expected). But was Goya’s muse really suspected of being a closeted Jew because she declined a serving of pork at a tavern? Was she imprisoned for 15 years because of it, and did she come out of the experience slightly crazy? Did a hypocritical priest impregnate her, and did the baby grow up to be a prostitute? These are questions for the ages.

But never mind. “Goya’s Ghosts” isn’t meant to be a biography of the artist. Instead, it uses a few real people and events as the framework for a fictional story that’s part satire, part melodrama, and all ham. It’s set around 1800 in Europe, so the costumes and sets are nicely detailed; I only wish the characters were as nuanced as some of the outfits they wear.

It was written and directed by Milos Forman, who has made a career out of films dealing with eccentrics, artists, and nutcases, e.g., “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Amadeus,” and “Man on the Moon.” He has Stellan Skarsgard as Goya, a court-commissioned painter whose fantastical, quasi-religious freelance work has raised a few eyebrows over at Catholic headquarters. Lucky for him, one of the Inquisitors, Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), defends Goya to his brethren, saying he has talent and that the church’s efforts are better spent elsewhere.

But do not think Lorenzo is anything less than hardcore when it comes to tracking down heretics! In one scene, he gives instructions to his operatives that include observing how men urinate in public. If they cover themselves too self-consciously, it might be that they are trying to hide the fact that they are circumcised, which of course would mean they are Jews in need of either conversion or torture, whichever is easier.

The Inquisition chooses as one of its targets Ines (Natalie Portman), a beautiful young woman who has posed as a model for Goya. The artist is also friendly with her family, the wealthy Bilbatuas, and they are among his patrons. But Ines was seeing turning down a pork-based meal one night, and Lorenzo’s dutiful Inquisitors figure there is only one possible reason for that: she’s secretly Jewish.

The way to get the truth out of her is to have her “put to The Question,” which is a euphemism for being tortured. The church doesn’t torture people, you see; it just puts them to The Question. Such measures are necessary, Lorenzo says, “in these troubled times.”

If that kind of doublespeak sounds familiar, it should. “In these troubled times” is an echo of the “in times like these” speeches we’ve heard every day since 9/11, and obviously the torture of enemies by their supposedly more civilized captors doesn’t need explaining. Later, the French invade and “free” the Spanish, who they figure must hate the Inquisition so much that they’ll welcome the invaders as liberators. So it gets a little muddy: Are the Inquisitors the Taliban, or are they Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? Or is the point that America has become so much like the enemy that it’s hard to tell the difference? Or am I making that up because it sounds good, and not because it’s what Forman had in mind?

Who knows. The second half of the film forsakes the political commentary in favor of good old-fashioned soap opera absurdity, with some twists of fate that are truly ludicrous. Ines, having been in prison for 15 years, comes out of it totally insane, and poor Natalie Portman must stumble around dazedly, in ghastly hair and makeup, and give her broadest, silliest performance to date. Making matters worse: When we meet her prostitute daughter, she is played by … Portman again. That’s right, folks: double-casting! I don’t know how many times this gimmick has been used in dramatic films and not turned out to be unintentionally funny, but I know the number is small.

Oh, and back to Goya. Goya is in this movie, too, I almost forgot. He goes deaf for no apparent reason (it happened in real life, too, but there was a reason) but continues to try to help Ines find her daughter. Lorenzo, who fled to France when his hypocrisy started to come to light and is back in Spain now that the French have taken control, insists Ines never had a daughter. She really did, though, and Lorenzo knows it, and he knows who that daughter’s father is, too.

It’s hard to take much of the movie very seriously, especially in the latter half. I don’t think it had to be that way. Milos Forman is a Czech, and he’s said the reason he didn’t make the film — about one of Spain’s greatest artists — in Spanish is that, well, he doesn’t speak Spanish. Fair enough. But why cast a Swedish actor as Goya and an Israeli-born American as his muse while casting a Spanish actor as her Inquisitor? And what about Randy Quaid as Spain’s King Carlos IV? I don’t care what ethnicity Carlos IV was (he didn’t have any Spanish blood in him), and I don’t care if Quaid actually looks a bit like him. There’s just something inherently wrong with Randy Quaid playing the king of Spain, period. It makes you do a double-take and say, “Wait, Randy Quaid is the king of Spain? ¡Que loco!”

Aside from Portman’s missteps (which may have been unavoidable, given what she had to work with), the acting is appropriately solid. Skarsgard is very likable as Goya, an artist who’s a bit of a rebel but not completely reckless, while Bardem is supremely conniving as Lorenzo. He’s got a honey-coated voice that makes you almost believe every hypocritical thing that comes out of his mouth.

That’s more than I can say for the film, which is only about 10 percent believable. Certain sequences work very well in the first half; very little goes right after that. Maybe Forman ought to have put his film to The Question a little longer before letting it loose on the world.

C+ (1 hr., 53 min.; R, a little nudity, some strong violence, some moderate sexuality.)