“Goya’s Ghosts” A Critical Film Review

Goya’s Ghosts, a period drama that takes place during the Spanish Inquisition, embodies the stereotypical Hollywood historical cinema.  Like many movies before it, the historical events of the time are greatly oversimplified.  Clearly there is no way to fit significant history into a two hour film, however the film does not attempt to go into depth on any of the historical events. All of the crucial elements of the movie become simplified to the point where their meaning becomes jumbled and lost.

In an attempt to squeeze more history into the narrow plot, the movie takes an abrupt intermission of 15 years leading from its expositional act to its complication act.  The conflicts take place during the majority of the film, with many references to the idea of Monarchy, Napoleon, the Catholic Church, and the role of women at the time.  By attempting to cover such a vast amount of historical ground, the movie loses any central theme it may have had if the producers had chosen to focus on a more specific person in a more specific time.

Instead, the three main characters, Ines, Goya and Lorenzo, embody characteristics of many persons combined into one.   Ines takes on the role as the innocent and exploited woman, while Lorenzo plays the power hungry villain.  Goya, a painter to the royal court, plays the intermediary between the two.   Although the movie is named after Goya, he is not the main character, and his role in the movie is of little importance.  The role of Goya in the film could be seen as an attempt to add credibility to the movie with a real art history reference.

Where the movie falls short however, is not in their reference to Goya as a famous and influential painter at the time, but in their lack of effort in depicting Goya as anything other than a silly, naïve and passive artist.  While the movie attempts to embody Goya as a likable character, historical evidence describes Goya’s temperament as lively and prone to anger.  Specialists in art history cite Goya as moody, quick to react and even considered by many to be delusional in his later years.  Despite that the movie is named after Goya, he plays a less then influential role.  Although Goya tries to be engaged with those around him, his jolly and flaccid nature deems him unresponsive to social events.  The irony here is beyond that Goya’s Ghosts does not focus on Goya himself, but also that what little it does focus on is historically inaccurate.

Goya was revered for his modern and radical interpretation of events surrounding the Catholic Church, monarchy and war.  His works of art depict the misery of the people at the time, and to this day they convey the sense that Goya felt empathy for the sufferings of his people.  By not placing him above the people he depicts in his art, Goya’s work reflects a man of introspective and passionate nature.

In addition to using Goya’s name as a way to gain credibility from the audience, the movie provides great attention to detail as proof of its authenticity.  The set is filled with bustling streets on which horse drawn carriages dance and peasants beg.  When Goya visits the royal place to paint the queen, the audience gets a glimpse at the lavish lifestyle of the monarchy.  The costume designs seemed incredibly realistic, perhaps most obviously when Ines is released from prison and seems almost unrecognizable.  Ines, the once beautiful and aristocratic girl is reduced to a hunchback who is losing her hair, clothed in rags, and covered in bed sores.  For an audience that has limited knowledge of the time period, the realistic appearance of the set and characters makes the movie seem authentic.

Despite the movie’s attempt to portray historical accuracy, there is an underlying message that speaks to contemporary times.  At the time of the movie’s release in 2006, the United States experienced global criticism in regards to the ethics of the war in Iraq and the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib Prison.  One of the main themes in the movie deals with the principles behind torture.  After Ines confesses to practicing Judaism after being “put to the question”, the movie raises questions of the validity of torture.  Ines never receives the fair trial she is promised, and over the next 15 years is subject to torture, inhumane living conditions and sexual assault.

The movie’s ability to create an authentic torture scene creates an empathetic audience.  That it focuses around a beautiful young woman, instead of the conventional villain, also plays to the audience’s emotions. The audience finds themselves questioning the validity of torture as they watch an innocent young girl falsely confess to a crime.  Goya’s Ghosts does succeed, however, at exemplifying the illegitimate results obtained by torture after Lorenzo confesses to something absurd after being put to the question.  The plot encourages audiences to rethink their judgment of criminals and terrorists who have been subjected to torture and sexual assault in US run prisons without receiving a trial.

The parallels of Ines’ plight to the Iraq war are far from subtle, and the allegory of the US invasion of Iraq is continuous throughout the movie.  There is a case of foreign invasion, which leads to a brutal occupation despite the oppressive regime it overthrows, powerful radicals, fanatic insurgents, mass murders and rapes of peasants, and the restriction of cultural freedom.   Yet the movie does not succeed in exploring the metaphor enough to draw any serious conclusions.  Like Goya’s character, it too gets lost in the plot and period hype.

The movie also depicts the Catholic Church at the time of the Spanish Inquisition and relates it to issues the church is currently facing.  At the time of the movie the Catholic Church was a powerful and oppressive force in the everyday lives of people.  The Catholic Church could exploit the people with no one to stand in their way, not even the monarchy.  Ines is raped repeatedly in the Church jail and becomes impregnated by a priest, Lorenzo.  The Catholic Church has been under fire in recent times for many sexual assault cases, and the film choose to exemplify these issues.  The conscious choice of the producers to depict the priests as torturers, rapists, and power hungry makes the film seem biased against the church.

While the movie clearly revolves around the inhumane idea of torture and the corruption of the Church, it highlights many current democratic ideals.  The movie speaks to present society in its emphasis on humanism, equality and freedom for all.  Yet this view is not congruent with that of the time.  During the time period, the Church and monarchy were the ruling figures, and idea of democracy was deemed lunatic and satanic.

The people are liberated from their oppression under the church and monarchy after the French conquer Spain in the name of liberation and freedom.  These are ideals that contemporary societies hold very highly, which explain why they are shed in a positive light in the movie.  The movie emphasizes Ines’s release from prison after the church and monarchy is toppled, which portrays the French as liberators.  Although Ines’s family has been killed along with many other Spaniards, the movie portrays the French as the good guys.  The royalty and church officials who have been negatively portrayed have been punished for their bad deeds by being slaughtered, driven to exile or jailed.  The black and white portrayals that distinguish between the liberal and the conservative, the establishments and the freedom fighters, and the oppressed and the liberated only reinforce the contemporary dominant ideology.  These partisan views of the past do not do justice to the complex social and political upheavals that were taking place at the time.

In further digression from historical relevance of the movie, a romantic storyline is included.  Before Ines is put in prison, she acts a muse for Goya’s art.  He is captured by her beauty and incorporates her face into many of his great works.  Once in the prison, Ines falls in love with Lorenzo, despite the fact that he is raping her.  After the child they conceived is taken away, Ines becomes crazed and intent on finding her child, as well as continuing her romantic relationship with Lorenzo.  In a truly pitiful ending, Ines finds an abandoned baby she believes to be her own, as well as Lorenzo’s dead body on a cart.  The romance, while not conventional, heightens the audience’s emotional impact of the movie.

Unfortunately, the romantic element of the movie takes away from the real impact of the film.  While Ines maintains her role as a courageous and strong heroine throughout most of the first act, the romantic aspect of the movie reduces her to a pathetic love-sick woman.  Her obsession with the man who raped her in prison reduces her character and eliminates her chances of being a real heroine or muse for Goya.  Even the idea that Goya is haunted by her image (hence the title Goya’s Ghosts) is only mentioned through a fleeting cameo of flashbacks of her face.

Beyond portraying Ines as a helpless woman, the movie has two other references to weak female characters.  Ines’s mother is a timid housewife who hides in her closet and prays as Lorenzo is tortured in their dining room.  She embodies the quintessential role of a contemporary housewife; hiding away while the men do the “dirty work.”  Even Ines’s daughter is reduced to the sorry role of a prostitute for wealthy gentlemen.  Her daughter seems smart and lively, yet unmotivated by anything other then men, sex and money.  Even when she is rescued at the end of the film by the British troops, it is implied that she will sleep with one of the soldiers.  Goya’s Ghosts clearly lacks a strong female character, which perpetuates the ideology of women being subordinate to men throughout history.  Despite the fact that the only corrupt characters in the film are men, the male characters are still portrayed as more powerful and intellectual then the women.

Overall, the stereotypical conventions of Hollywood storytelling have led to the demise of Goya’s Ghosts.  The film’s attempt at accurate historical depiction, chronological events, real representations of people, and consistent themes are all unsuccessful.  The movie leaves the audience feeling empty and confused at the blurred line between fact and fiction, Hollywood and history. The film perpetuates dominant ideologies of contemporary times under the mask of a historical drama. While the movie can be called a period film, as it embodies the physical elements of the time, it can surely not be called a historical depiction of any person, place or event.

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