Milos Forman’s Portrait

Teaching Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time in years, I was surprised by the fact that none of the students had even seen the 1975 film, one of only three movies ever to win the five major Oscars—Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. The others were It Happened One Night (’34) and The Silence of the Lambs (’91).

I was disappointed to learn none of the students had even heard of Cuckoo’s Nest’s director, the accomplished Czech filmmaker Milos Forman, who died this year at 86.

Out of my chagrin, though, came the resolve to finally watch Forman’s final English-language film, Goya’s Ghosts (2006). He made one last movie in 2009, a film version of the Czech theatrical production A Work Worthwhile, which, to my knowledge, was never released in any version here in the United States.

Like Amadeus and Valmont (Forman’s ’89 award-winning take on the classic French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses), Goya’s Ghosts is a period drama, the events occurring in Spain over a 15-year period in the early 1800s. The principal characters include the great Spanish romance painter Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgård), young Inés (Natalie Portman), one of his favorite models, and Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), a nefarious monk.

Those two last characters are mostly fictional, but the historical backdrop against which their stories are told (with screenplay by Forman and Jean-Claude Carrière) includes the Spanish Inquisition, the Napoleonic conquest of Spain and the English ouster of the French. There’s a lot of stuff, historical and fictional, going on. Much ‘stuff,’ admittedly, involves melodrama and coincidence.

The same criticism could be leveled at anything Charles Dickens wrote, including his stellar period piece, A Tale of Two Cities. So what’s my point? Credibility of character can override plot.

Still, much of the initial criticism for Goya’s Ghosts was of the story. So it became one of Forman’s least successful movies, largely unseen because of scant distribution.

That’s a real shame. The movie is much better than its reputation.

Arrested by those running the Inquisition for being a suspected “Judaizer,” Inés is “put to the Question” (aka, tortured) to prove her guilt. When both Goya’s pleas and those of her wealthy family fall on deaf ears, the villainous Father Lorenzo gets a taste of his own medicine from her father. The disgraced monk flees for his life, impregnating the imprisoned girl on the way out.

After a 15-year interval, Lorenzo returns to Spain, now an ardent Napoleonic official with former colleagues and monks squarely in his crosshairs. Meanwhile, among the freed inmates of the Institution, Goya has found Inés, horribly ravaged, her unbalanced mind fixated on finding the child taken from her.

Now a changed man with a family of his own, Lorenzo struggles to right his wrongs and, with Goya’s help, find his abandoned daughter. No outcome is promising.

Forman’s casting of Skarsgård as the Spaniard Goya prompted some sniping, as did the writer/ director’s decision to shoot the film in English instead of Goya’s native Spanish, especially since Bardem had a starring role. Forman dismissed the criticism, saying he couldn’t speak Spanish himself. Besides, as a self-portrait of a younger Goya over the credits indicates, the Swedish actor has a striking resemblance to the Spanish artist.

Skarsgård is utterly convincing, especially in the film’s second half, as Goya’s more impassioned conscience and style emerge. Bardem and Portman are even better, each effectively playing two roles—reflecting the sea change in their characters. In Portman’s case, the dual role is literal—she plays Inés as well as Inés’ adult daughter Alicia.

In his native Czechoslovakia and his adopted United States, Milos Forman was a national treasure. One hopes those fans who may have missed his swan song will give Goya’s Ghosts a well-deserved look.