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Having carried some of the images of Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War in my mind from an early age, it was with some surprise that I came across a movie, from 2006, titled Goya’s Ghosts .  Not just any movie either, but one directed by Milos Forman, acclaimed director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, AmadeusRagtime and many more meaning-full films.  Javier Bardem leads the cast,  Natalie Portman and Randy Quaid bring fine credentials.  Goya is played by Stellan Skarsgård who I didn’t know, but measured by the company of the others, Forman must have known something.

Under the opening titles, church officials are looking over gruesome line drawings, or etchings, of men and women in deep distress.  The faces and clothing of the viewers are set against deep shadows, as were so many of Goya’s portraits of the period.

“These are being sold in the streets ?” one asks.  “As far as Mexico City”  another answers.   “So,  this is how people see us!” he exclaims. Even 200 years ago, people in power worried how they were being seen, and the visual image was  strong.

The “demonic filth and degradation” scandalizing them are from Goya’s 80 Caprichos (1799), best translated as “sketches,” though what they are holding are prints made from copper-plate etchings. Among those we see being passed around, are “Capricho No. 68: Linda maestra (Pretty teacher),” “Capricho No. 51: Se repulen (They spruce themselves up,)” Capricho No. 56: Subir y bajar (To rise and to fall),” “Capricho No. 44: Hilan delgado (They spin finely).”

The year is 1792, 300 years since the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition, known in Catholic Spain as the Holy Office. Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), younger than many, and more severe, is in favor of restoring the Inquisition to its original severity, against an increasingly lenient Church.  And yet, one of the others asks him, “You are having you portrait done by this man, Goya?”

“Yes,” he answers,  “just as have the King (Carlos IV) and Queen (Maria Luisa) who consider him to be the greatest painter in Spain.”

We are introduced to Goya, genially played by Stellan Skarsgård.  A man from the hills of Saragossa, Goya has learned to comport himself well among royalty.  He is at ease with the Queen (too much at ease some have suggested.)  He is an artist, of course, but a man who knows how to defend his pecuniary interests.   He asks Brother Lorenzo, who is standing for a full length portrait, if he wants his hands included. “What is the difference?” asks Lorenzo.  “Hands are very difficult,” Goya replies. “One hand 2,000 reales, two hands 3,000.”

Bardem plays Lorenzo as a smoothly cruel reactionary, even among his fellow prelates. He warns  against Voltaire and those claiming that “matter is made of atoms”.  “If a man hides his penis while urinating he’s likely circumcised and a Jew … Bring their names to the holy office.”

As the story unfolds a young woman, Inés (Natalie Portman,) is brought before the inquisitors for having refused pork at a tavern, a sure sign of being a Jew.  She is “put to the question,” of which we get a visceral portrayal by Portman.  Unable to confess to being a Jew, she is held indefinitely in the prison.  Through the intercession of Goya, who has painted her portrait, Lorenzo pays her a visit, where he yields to temptation, but claims it is not in his power to free her.

Her well-off father devises a test for Brother Lorenzo.  Invited to a fine repast, he also “is put to the question,” and fails it, soon signing a document that he is “the bastard son of a chimpanzee and an orangutan.”  His conferees in the Holy Office turn against him for his blasphemy and he flees for his life.

[It is worth noting the year the film was made, 2006, three years after the Bush administration used torture on prisoners, in much the same belief as the Inquisition: that under torture a person would tell the truth and nothing but the truth. Forman’s own parents died in Nazi camps, his father in Buchenwald and his mother in Auschwitz.  He would have deep connection the the question of torture.]

Fifteen years later, in 1808, Napoleon’s army, under General Murat,  arrives to “liberate” the citizens of Spain from the dual vise of the royal family and the Catholic Church. The French Army believes that their arrival in Madrid will be greeted with joy and gratitude.  Indeed, Goya himself and many of his friends, Enlightenment intellectuals, have hope –as did Pierre and his Masonic friends in Tolstoy’s War and Peace— that the progressive French will break them out of the irons of reaction and the Inquisition.

Instead, the Spanish people tenuously cling to their religious and social traditions, rising in Madrid on May 2 against the invaders. They are soon overwhelmed and the next day the retribution begins. The prisons are emptied and Inés, decayed in mind and body, is freed, wandering crazed through the streets looking for her lost child.

Among the invading French is Lorenzo who, having fled the Inquisition, has studied the works of Rousseau and Voltaire in France and been converted.  He returns as a French officer and prosecutes his old fellow inquisitors.

Goya, now deaf, and having witnessed the popular rising and the street battles, begins what will become Los Desastres de la Guerra, and the stunning painting The Third of May, 1808.  Neither  the painting nor the etchings will be seen until years after his death in 1828.


For purposes of the movie, Goya takes Inés in and attempts to help her find the daughter she says she bore in prison. When he enlists the help of his old friend Lorenzo, surprises await all.

And the tables turn again.  Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, best known for his defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, June 18, 1815, has landed in Portugal, crossed the border, and crushed the French armies at the Battle of Vitoria June 21, 1813. The Peninsular War between Napoleonic France and Britain, Portugal and Spain are virtually at an end. Prisoners are released and the men of the Holy Office are back in charge; the traitor Lorenzo is brought before his former prisoners, and offered a chance to repent of his blasphemies; Forman reproduces one of Goya’s famous Desastres

In fact, he recreates several of Goya’s better known paintings in the film,  including Carlos IV and the famous equestrian portrait of his wife; the wartime execution scene in the painting entitled “The Third of May 1808.” But the most amazing and visually arresting of these recreations is a trial by the Inquisition after the French were driven out and Ferdinand VII was restored (“The Tribunal of the Inquisition,” 1812). Forman recreates this painting as the film’s dramatic conclusion.

Despite the title, Goya is not the dramatic center of the film. Brother Lorenzo is, as demonic inquisitor and well-fed Republican official in captured Madrid. Goya is temperamentally liberal, on the side of the poor and the broken, but unforceful about it, unable/unwilling to move from his comfortable life as a painter;  what he leaves us, the forceful etchings The Disasters of War, although having no effect on the horrors of his time have perhaps moved millions to understand war’s realities.  Co-written with Jean-Claude Carrière famous for his work with Luis Bunuel, perhaps this is their commentary on the artist, themselves, in times of chaos.  If not the man to go to the barricades, or pull victims from the flames then at least witness.  Leave a record, descriptive and moral for the generations to come.

Goya’s Ghosts is perhaps not the best film of art and war.  A bit too much of  invented personal dramas to keep modern audiences involved, for my taste but not too bad, either, as historical drama.  It offers more than perfect costuming and kings and queens at play.  A interesting entry into the life and work of Goya, and the knowledge that the past has not been a gentler and a kinder place.

And yes, in case you noticed, there is a timeline discrepancy in the film.  The opening scenes in which the prelates are looking at Los Caprichos is 1792, after the French Revolution and according to the film 15 years before 1808.  However, the etchings, as far as we know, were done in 1798-99. So, call it artistic licence.

I expect to be posting another few items about Goya and his war-related paintings, and will cross link them as I go.

Other Reviews

Richard Shickle, at Time Magazine

Scott Horton, at Harpers

Books and Video on Goya

Robert Hughes, British art critic. Hour long talk on Goya.

The first of a 6 hour series, in Spanish (no subtitles), called Los Desastres de la Guerra 

Joyce Carey – Art and Reality  1961

Hume, Martin  — Modern Spain  1900

Thomas, Hugh — Goya: The Third of May,  1972

Shickel, Richard —  The World of Goya, 1968,   199 pp

Victor I. Stoichita, Anna Maria Coderch  — The Last Carnival, 2000 (on the 1799 Caprichos)