Miloš Forman first heard about the Spanish Inquisition when he was a student in Prague.
“It was probably my first shock as a citizen,” says the 75-year-old, two-time Oscar winning director. “In the `50s, as an idealistic young man, I read these terrible things about the Spanish Inquisition, and I saw the parallels, exactly the same thing, in Czechoslovakia, during the Communist era: people being arrested without reasons, then confessing to crimes they never committed, obviously under torture, and then being executed. It was happening right there, in the 1950s.
Goya's Ghosts (Los Fantasmas de Goya)
Stellan Skarsgård, Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, Randy Quaid, Blanca Portillo, Michael Lonsdale, José Luis Gómez
(Samuel Goldwyn Films; US theatrical: 20 Jul 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 16 May 2007 (General release); 2006)
“Everybody thought that the dark ages of Inquisitions and all this stuff was over. No. ... But, of course, I wouldn’t have even dared to try to make any movie like that in Communist society.”
A half-century later, Forman has. “Goya’s Ghost,” a roiling melodrama set in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when the Catholic Church ruled Spain with an iron fist, stars Javier Bardem as an ambitious and wily Inquisition priest, Stellan Skarsgard as the revered Spanish painter Francisco Goya, and Natalie Portman as a merchant’s daughter, accused of heresy and sent to prison, where she is tortured and raped.
Perhaps the oddest piece of casting in “Goya’s Ghost” is Texas-born character actor Randy Quaid as King Carlos IV.
Forman, on the phone from New York, laughs.
“It’s the same way I was thinking when I was doing `Amadeus,’” says the director, who cast “the red-blooded American” Jeffrey Jones as Austrian Emperor Joseph II in the 1984 Academy Award winner. “So here is Randy Quaid, this hillbilly from Texas, with a banjo in his hands, and he was perfect!”
Actually, he is. If you look at Goya’s paintings of Spain’s royal court—and Forman was looking closely—King Carlos and Quaid are virtual doppelgangers.
Forman recruited his longtime friend and collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere for the “Goya’s Ghost” screenplay. The duo had teamed on Forman’s first English-language entry, the Aquarian Age satire “Taking Off,” and on his 1989 “Dangerous Liaisons”-inspired period piece, “Valmont.”
“He is a friend, a brilliant writer, he speaks Spanish, he knows Spanish history,” says Forman of Carriere. “And he worked on several films with the great Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel. Jean-Claude was perfect.”
Carriere handed in his final draft, says Forman, in the fall of 2002. That’s a year before Vice President Dick Cheney went on television to say that U.S. military forces “would be greeted as liberators” in Iraq, that the Iraqi people would throw flowers at the soldiers’ feet.
Virtually the same line appears in “Goya’s Ghost,” spoken by Napoleon Bonaparte to his troops as they set out to invade Spain.
“It’s difficult to make people believe that the screenplay was finished months before the invasion of Iraq,” notes Forman. “But really, it was. ... Napoleon said it, verbatim.
“The irony is that Napoleon was really liberating Spain from the grip of monarchy and the church. He was in the service of the French Revolution. ... He abolished the Inquisition; he immediately released all the political prisoners, and he deposed the royals. ... He really tried to plant the seed of democracy into Spanish soil. The only problem was that he didn’t realize he was planting the right seed in the wrong soil ... and then he was chased out of Spain.”
Forman, who lives in Connecticut, says he’s not certain what his next movie will be. After “Man On the Moon,” his 1999 biopic of the comic Andy Kaufman—with Jim Carrey in the lead—the director had a frustrating run of false starts, of features developed and then ditched.
Finally came “Goya’s Ghost.”
“I don’t expect a blockbuster, because it’s not a feel-good movie,” he says. “But I hope it’s a think-good movie.”