Looking out on the grim new world of 1792, the Spanish Inquisitors are upset. For one thing, the latest etchings by royal court portraitist Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgård) are scandalous. Even worse, they’re available for purchase everywhere—from Rome to Mexico. “This is how the world sees us!”, the Church officials moan. What to do? What to do?
And then, a solution, offered by Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) with smarmy aplomb. His logic is elegant and acute: the images are disturbing, but they are not merely offenses by “an agent of the darkest powers.” Rather, they reveal the “true face of our world,” Lorenzo argues—well aware that he has also had his portrait painted by Goya, and so needs a rationale. The art makes clear the urgency of the Inquisitors’ mission: they must return their craven brethren to “the old ways.” Aha, the men of God nod as one, indeed they must. A strategy is born. “Now, in these troubled times,” they must seek and/or assert the truth as they see it.
If the Inquisitors’ methods—surveillance, detainment without charge, torture, and oppressive whispering campaigns—sound familiar, it’s because Miloš Forman’s movie proposes that “these troubled times” quite resemble our own. Using fear to argue for their own unquestionable authority, the Inquisitors put those they deem threatening “to The Question,” that is, torture. The logic of their process is chilling. Lorenzo submits that torture is a valid means to confessions (if not “information”), because the testimony given under such duress is a function of faith. “Your fear of God,” he insists, “would prevent you from making a false confession… If you are innocent of the charge, God will give you the strength to withstand the pain.” In other words, as soon as Lorenzo calls in a suspected heretic, his or her guilt is decided.
While this premise is surely disturbing, the film—which covers the period from the Inquisition through Napoleon and the French Revolution (whose victors invade Spain with the belief that they will be greeted as “liberators”)—proceeds as an odd, even glib series of plot turns, with Goya serving as something of a Forrest Gump for his “times.” Observing and also representing the horrors wreaked by his countrymen, he uses his art to cast judgment and challenge authority. He takes up his charge in two ways, recording injustices as bleak, darkly shadowed etchings and revealing the foibles of his moneyed subjects. When Lorenzo sees his portrait by Goya, he is taken aback: “If I were to meet this man on the street,” he murmurs, almost upset, “I would never recognize myself in him. One has such a different idea of oneself.”
But Lorenzo, much like Goya’s other prominent clients, the tediously self-satisfied King Carlos IV (Randy Quaid) and his beady-eyed queen, María Luisa (Blanca Portillo), takes his own vision of himself as truth. At least until it changes. As the most egregious villain of Goya’s Ghosts, Lorenzo lacks principle, courage, and even a sense of self. The sheer horror of his Inquisition panels is made clear when he calls in Goya’s favorite portrait subject, Inés (Natalie Portman). Snatched from the home of her wealthy merchant father, Bilbatúa (José Luis Gómez), she’s accused of refusing pork at a local eatery (thus indicating to Lorenzo that she is Jewish) and summarily put to The Question. She’s stripped naked and tortured until she “confesses” to heresy, at which point she’s cast into the mucky bowels of Madrid’s prison.
Here Inés suffers decades of torment, alleviated—if that’s the word for it—by infrequent visits from Lorenzo, who breathes heavily into her filthy bosom and slips his hand up her leg (at first frightened, she comes to take these rapes as signs of friendship). On the outside, Bilbatúa makes an effort to free his daughter, enlisting Goya’s help “I’m in no position to curry favors from the Inquisition,” the artist protests, then proceeds to bring Lorenzo to the merchant’s home for dinner. Lorenzo protests that the situation is beyond him: “Releasing her would contradict the basic tents of our faith. It would suggest that the Church doubts the power of The Question.” To demonstrate the fallacy of The Question, the aggrieved father puts Lorenzo to it, hanging him from the chandelier above the family’s formal dinner table, silverware and china brushed aside for the occasion. Lorenzo duly collapses, confessing to a ridiculous lie to stop the pain.
Still, the logic of torture is unbending. Lorenzo leaves town rather than face his own humiliation (though he spends a few on-screen minutes in a dunce cap, emulating Goya’s etching, Those Specks of Dust), aligning himself with the enlightenment in France, then returning to Spain with the French Invasion. “I am here to serve the ideas of the Revolution,” he says. “They opened my eyes… All men are born free.” Now married with children, Lorenzo comes back into power as a member of the council that sentences his old boss in the Inquisition, Father Gregorio (Michael Lonsdale), to death. “There will be no liberty for the enemies of liberty!” he exhorts. (This would be the sleep of reason producing monsters.) Again, Lorenzo is more repellent than anyone else in the room, his revenge on his former accusers more an indictment of the system he continues to exploit than the Inquisition’s moral comeuppance.
The excesses of authority were, of course, a persistent subject for Goya. And if Forman’s movie doesn’t take up his distinctive visual style, it does embrace his broad satire, ferociously targeting religious, state, and financial leaders. While Goya’s Ghosts is frequently messy, with plot points and characters all but stumbling over one another, it is nonetheless compelling, earnest and angry, often outrageous.
When at last Inés is released, Goya is again on the scene, making it his business to find her 16-year-old daughter Alicia (also played by Portman), heavily mascara-ed and working as a prostitute in the local public gardens. This even as Lorenzo maintains his repugnant course, refusing responsibility for his part in Inés or Spain’s destruction, instead arguing that he alone has stood on principle, again echoing the self-defense mounted by current administration officials. “I am a believer,” he tells Goya. “But you, you work for anyone who pays.”
By this point, Goya has lost his hearing, and must speak through an interpreter (Wael Al Moubayed). The layers of communication make clear the duplicity and self-deception in play, even as Goya is granted insight. “You only believe in money,” he scolds Lorenzo. “You’re the whore.” You believe Goya, but it’s past time for saving Inés. And so the question remains: can art—resistant and discerning—save the rest of us?