Even near the end of almost 300 years of terror, the legitimacy of the Spanish Inquisition in the courts and its hold over the Spanish people was still considerable at the end of the 18th century. So much so that, as Milos Forman's new film "Goya's Ghosts" begins, Inés Bilbatúa, (Natalie Portman), the beautiful young daughter of a prosperous Madrid merchant is fingered by the Inquisition's eyes and ears, the Familiars, as a possible Jewish sympathizer simply for turning down a dish of pork in a tavern.
"Spain today is one big whorehouse," purrs Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), and when he lays eyes on the shackled Inés — whose beauty so captivated Spain's great painter Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgård) that she modeled for his angels — he buys the innocent girl's favors with the false promise of her release.
Desperate for news of his daughter, Inés's father (José Luis Gómez) turns to Goya, who has in fact been painting Brother Lorenzo's portrait on commission. But when Goya brings Lorenzo to the Bilbatúa home, ostensibly to facilitate the bribe that will free Inés from her cell, Inés's father and brothers stage an Inquisition of their own. As apolitical Goya runs for cover, the Bilbatúas hoist Brother Lorenzo over the dinner table and prepare to "put him to the question," themselves.
The sequence of betrayals, blackmail, and banishments, and the bitingly cynical and satirical changes of allegiance that ensue as "Goya's Ghosts" sharply and briskly marches through the last bloody quarter of Spain's 18th-century history, is far too convoluted and intricate to summarize here. Suffice it to say that Inés and Lorenzo's braided fates and Spain's suffering under Napoleonic rule provide more than adequate material for both Goya and Mr. Forman's unique abilities to memorably chronicle human misery and survival through the application of their respective arts.
Mr. Forman's film, co-written with frequent Luis Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, is miraculously free of the stodgy romanticism and self-indulgent anachronisms of big canvas historical dramas and biopics. It's unlikely you will see a lighter, more entertaining, and more trenchant examination of the extremes of human folly on a movie screen this year.
The miracle of "Goya's Ghosts" is that its farcical elements and operatic extremes are pitched with the genial ease of real life, not the typically shrill excesses of internationally cast historical movies. Working with Javier Aguirresarobe, the excellent Spanish cinematographer of Pedro Almodóvar's "Talk to Her" and Alejandro Amenabar's "The Others," Mr. Forman deals this film's winning hand of truth, fiction, and consequence in democratic twoshots and crisp warm colors.
With its decade-and- a-half narrative jumps, surprise reunions, torture scenes, cavalry battles, and especially the audaciously retro touch of casting Ms. Portman in the duel role of both Inés Bilbatúa and her supposedly orphaned daughter, "Goya's Ghosts" bears more than a passing resemblance to an Alexandre Dumas novel. In writing the film, "We didn't refuse a certain melodrama," Mr. Carrière chuckled on the phone from his home in Paris.
But Messrs. Forman and Carrière have rooted both far-flung history and farcical coincidence in the bedrock of their own experiences. Mr. Forman, who grew up in what is now the Czech Republic, was orphaned by the Nazis during World War II. Mr. Carrière lived in both occupied France and in Fascist Spain.
"Don't forget that Milos and I are 75," Mr. Carrière said. "When we were kids, it was the time of Nazism. Milos went from Nazism to Communism and I have known Francoism very well in Spain. All of these different kinds of fanaticism have crossed our lives — every time they were claiming that they were defending new, modern, universal, and generous ideas."
Messrs. Carrière and Forman had discussed the idea of a film about the Inquisition for nearly 40 years. "Milos was always talking about fanaticism, and fanaticism leads necessarily to the Inquisition and the inquisition leads to Spain," Mr. Carrière said. "Our idea was to confront the Inquisition with the new and modern ideas of the French Revolution and see what would happen. What we really liked is that you can be a fanatic defending old, dark, and terrible ideas, but you can also be a fanatic defending new, beautiful, modern, and generous ideas."
The pieces fell into place when the two men visited the Prado Museum in Madrid after the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. The museum's collection of works by Goya, Velásquez, and Bosch brought to mind how much of history is remembered through art, not politics. At the center of "Goya's Ghosts" is a decades-long and ultimately irresolvable conflict between of the characters of Goya the painter and Lorenzo the zealot. "One wants to change the world," Mr. Carrière said. "The other wants to look at the world and show it to other people."
Were "Goya's Ghosts" truly a melodrama, Lorenzo's transformation from priest to heretic to revolutionary would have been crafted with a heavy judgmental hand. But Messrs. Forman and Carrière share an obvious affection for their default villain. "We have absolutely no contempt for Lorenzo," Mr. Carrière said. "He's a brilliant man full of energy. He wants to do something with his life, except that he makes the wrong choice."
Ultimately, though, Mr. Carrière did confess to taking sides. "We are filmmakers and writers, we are on the side of Goya," he said. "We believe that Goya finally has done much more just from what he showed the world than any politician did to change the world during his time."