Francisco de Goya was a painter of evil, but the Spanish Inquisition might have said he was an evil painter. Both the artist and the outrage appear in Goya's Ghosts (rated R for violence, disturbing images, some sexual content, and nudity). Though the film earns its R rating, it does so by capturing the disfigurements in human nature.
Ghosts is the latest work by writer-director Milos Forman, who fictionalized Mozart's life in Amadeus. But this film is not a biopic of Goya, the Spanish master who became a forerunner of modernist art.
Instead, it draws on his pieces and moods to recreate a turn-of-the-century Spain swallowed by rival absolute powers-the Inquisition and the French Revolution. Goya becomes a character in history, and it's through his eyes and work that we see the specific, if fictional, history of the film's two main characters: young, beautiful Inés (Natalie Portman), a subject of Goya's, and the rapacious monk Lorenzo (Javier Bardem).
Falsely accused of being a Judaizer by the Inquisition, Inés is thrown into a dungeon for 15 years, where Lorenzo rapes her. She gives birth to a daughter, who becomes a harlot-also played by Portman. Only when Napoleon's French forces invade in 1808, bent on spreading liberty by force, does Inés escape prison, a diseased wisp of herself, and the two meet again.
Through all this, Goya (Stellan Skarsgård) watches her and the country convulse with power-hungry men and invaders. We see him as painter to the royal court of Charles IV, but feel his horror as he etches figures distorted by war, lusts, and privations.
Here the ambitious monk Lorenzo is most fascinating: He commits rape and violence, but we see his root sins are pride and selfishness. So evil is complex in its workings but simple in origin. The result is a film as disturbing, yet eerily beautiful, as Goya's dark paintings.