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Portrait on a Canvas of Dreams

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2000


    'Goya in Bordeaux' Portrait of the artist with candles on his head: Francisco Rabal is "Goya in Bordeaux." (Manuel Zambrana)
"Goya in Bordeaux" is a portrait of the artist as an old man. Directed by the Spaniard Carlos Saura, it's a rhapsodic piece, theatricalized and artificial, that ventures stylistically toward the dance films on which Saura made his reputation. Yet it's not pure movement; it has an introspective quality as well, and comes in the end to be strongly emotional.

It's set in 1828 in the sunny French province where the old man went not to die but to live. That he did die soon after his arrival, of course, merely proves that life is short (even though he was 82 when he passed) but art is forever.

The movie is a kind of reverie. The old man awakes from a nightmare and begins to wander the streets. Where am I, where am I, he cries, to the annoyance of the French. Eventually his daughter – she's in her teens, testament to the old man's rampant goatishness – gathers him and takes him back to the house. There, upset by his experience, he finds his mind traumatically freed to roam through the past. He knows that death approaches; he laments that life was so brief; he recalls the events that made him and that broke him.

The scholarship behind the movie appears to be spot on. Goya lived a fabulous, but embittering, life. He was famous, pampered, adored and became a painter at the Spanish court, making all the dog-faced nobles into handsome, sleek creatures. Then he went deaf at 46, and lost his attraction to the glossy, pre-jet-set world of European royalty; his work became coarser and darker. Ultimately he witnessed the horrors of war when the French – whom, as a good liberal, he had adored for their revolutionary principles – invaded Spain, which turned him really pessimistic, resulting in masterpieces like the "Disasters of War" etchings and "The Shootings of May 3, 1808."

Over his most tormented period he created some of the world's most horrifying paintings, including the nearly obscene "Saturn Devouring His Children," which could teach the makers of "The Blair Witch Project" everything they ever wanted to know about fear but were afraid to ask. He gave up on Madrid after many years and spent the end of his life in France, painting furiously till his eyes closed for good.

However conventional that sounds, this is no documentary. Saura, ably abetted by the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, re-creates scenes from the painter's life on interior stages. The camera, freed to glide, flows as if through the old man's memory, discovering both the glory of his life and the tragedy.

The old man is played by Francisco Rabal as a lusty Spanish ancient who in his eighties could still kick butt on a platoon of Marines. A bully, a tyrant, a great man and a man who knows he's a great man, he's at the same time still capable of love in the present and of remembering love, and is still as sharp as a dueling blade. The youth he remembers himself to be is played splendidly by Jose Coronado, but Coronado never gets the close-ups and camera adoration that Rabal receives.

As it progresses, the movie veers toward the theatrical, and comes to feel weirdly like the patriotic dramas put on by the Third Infantry over at Fort Myer. That is, the past is usually represented by formations that are almost living dioramas, with posed, costumed figures that are generally static as they replicate the imagery of Goya's greatest paintings. The technique makes great use of theatrical screens, which are transparent when lit from behind and opaque when lit from in front, so that walls and scenes come and go smoothly, without the yet more artificial imposition of special effects.

The crescendo of all this effort is "The Disasters of War," that series of searing etchings Goya created between 1810 and 1814, which stripped military violence of its romantic beauty. This is certainly the most impressive part of the film, backlit by Storaro with blood reds to suggest the substance most liberated by wars of liberation. We move through the iconic compositions, the limbless corpses hanging on the dead trees, the swaddled crowd of corpses under the lime powder that means to hasten their decomposition. We observe the long train of wagons hauling their pathetic refugees, we see the recoiling revolutionaries as they feel the spray of French musket balls. The horror, the horror; all re-created here, brilliantly.

The film ends on a symbolic trope that's corny but clever: Goya dies; simultaneously a baby is born. That baby is not just a baby; it would be an art that rejected the academic for the real, the romantic for the authentic, the myth for the truth. We called it, eventually, modern.

"Goya in Bordeaux" (103 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Janus 3 in Spanish and French with English subtitles) is rated R for nudity and battle violence.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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