The Inquisition, in Broad Strokes

Friday, July 20, 2007

You might think that any director who offers Natalie Portman a double role clearly doesn't know what he's doing. But the director of "Goya's Ghosts" is no less than the Czech expatriate Milos Forman, who has created such luminous works as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus." He must know a thing or two. He knows that Portman has the necessary brazen confidence to play an aristocrat's daughter who is tortured and raped by priests (!) in the Spain of 1792, as well as her own daughter, a sultry prostitute. As a prison releasee, she most resembles Li'l Abner's Mammy Yokum, minus the corncob pipe.

Handsome but stilted, the movie centers on the great painter Goya (Stellan Skarsgard, see In Focus on Page 33), whose subject, an evil priest (Javier Bardem), uses his Inquisition powers to torment and rape a beautiful young woman (Portman), then flees to France when he's exposed by her family. Fifteen years later, he returns to Spain and under Napoleon's sponsorship runs an inquisition against the Inquisition.

The movie apes the style of a Victor Hugo or Alexandre Dumas novel, spanning decades and built about the fissure caused by a cataclysmic historical event. The tropes are familiar: The same people keep running into each other, every now and then a war breaks out, and justice is finally paid out, albeit late.

Goya, who lost his hearing in the midst of all this turmoil, witnesses the political ups and downs, but the movie isn't really about him. The best sequence is a montage that takes the artist through the horrors of war, and we can see the images that drove his famous series of drawings. Typically, it has nothing to do with the drama.

-- Stephen Hunter

Goya's Ghosts R, 114 minutes Contains violence, disturbing images, sexual content and nudity. At Landmark's Bethesda Row, AMC Loews Shirlington and AMC Loews Dupont.

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