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Friday, July 20, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Portrait of Goya could use more detail

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2 stars

Showtimes

"Goya's Ghosts," with Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgård, Randy Quaid. Directed by Milos Forman, from a screenplay by Forman and Jean-Claude Carrière.

113 minutes. Rated R for violence, disturbing images, some sexual content and nudity.

More than two decades after transporting audiences to 18th-century Europe in the multiple Academy Award-winning "Amadeus," Milos Forman has traveled back in time again. This time, the destination is 18th-century Spain, at the end of the Spanish Inquisition, with the focus again on an acclaimed creative artist. Alas, though "Goya's Ghosts" is elegantly shot and at times compelling, another "Amadeus" it isn't.

The artist Francisco Goya (played by a relaxed Stellan Skarsgård) provides the eyes through which we view this film's dark story. Scripted by Forman and Jean-Claude Carrière (who previously collaborated for yet another 18th-century tale, "Valmont"), it follows the artist's beautiful young muse Inés (Natalie Portman) as she is falsely accused of heresy by a scheming Inquisition authority, Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem). She is arrested and tortured, while Goya and her family desperately intercede on her behalf. After a 15-year gap in the narrative, the film jumps ahead for a strange, disjointed third act.

"Goya's Ghosts" looks beautiful (shot by Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe) with its soft light and etched-gray tones; the actors' faces glow in the candlelight like oil paintings. And its level of detail is intriguing: We're shown the intricate process of making an engraving, and an unforgettable image of Goya at work in his studio, wearing a hat rigged up with candles around its brim.

But despite the actors' valiant work, "Goya's Ghosts" is unsatisfying. Though a potentially fascinating character, Goya himself is mostly an observer, placed between a hideous villain and an innocent young woman. Bardem and Portman, stuck playing extreme types, can't overcome the script's limitations (though Bardem is a pleasure to watch, hissing and purring in his oily evilness). The huge jump in the storytelling seems frustratingly random, and a subplot near the end (involving a second character played by Portman) feels contrived and unnecessary.

Those who love historical drama may well find much to appreciate here, despite the film's limitations; the scenery alone (the film was shot at various locations in Spain, many of them breathtaking) is worth a look. But ultimately "Goya's Ghosts" left me wanting to watch "Amadeus" again, for the pleasure of a story well told.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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