Goya (Stellan Skarsgard), like most artists since the dawn of civilization, takes his commissions where he can get them, whether from complacent King Carlos (Randy Quaid) or wily Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), a priest of the Inquisition.
The film opposes the painter, a consistent chronicler of the human comedy, with Lorenzo, iron weather vane who crushes souls as he is buffeted by the political winds of change.
When Grand Inquisitor (Michel Lonsdale) chides Lorenzo for having his portrait painted by the artist whose etchings criticize religious hypocrisy, Lorenzo becomes even more vehement in rooting out heretics. One suspect is Ines Bilbatua (Natalie Portman), a merchant's daughter, and likewise, a Goya subject. Her refusal of suckling pig in a Madrid tavern raises suspicions that she is Jewish. She is arrested and tortured in scenes that make you cover your eyes.
It's hard to tell whether the film suffers from a script problem or a casting problem, but Bardem's performance has such subtlety and authority that it effectively eclipses all the others save Lonsdale. Bardem personifies the figure who believes in whatever regime is ascendent, whether it's religion or revolution.
As played by Skarsgard, Goya has little impact but to witness and record the horrors of the Inquisition and French invasion. Dramatically, he's too passive a figure. And while Portman is lovely, and deeply affecting, her underwritten double roles demand little more of this resourceful actress than a flirtatious flutter of the lashes and crumpled resignation.
Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe and production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein give Goyaesque shadow and texture to this stunning film of ideas.
Goya's Ghosts is not a perfect film, but its implications have profound resonance.
Goya's Ghosts *** (out of four stars)
Produced by Saul Zaentz, directed by Milos Forman. With Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgard.
Running time: 1 hour, 54
Parent's guide: R (torture, sexuality, violence)
Playing at: Ritz East and Showcase Cineart at the Ritz Center/NJ
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at 215 854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org.