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Following "Amadeus" and "The People vs. Larry Flint," Milos Forman says he is fulfilling a long-standing dream with "Goya's Ghosts." While the exalted, eternally giggling and farting Mozart was the focus of "Amadeus", neither the person of Francisco de Goya nor his creations are at the centre of this essayistic, historically vague epic. The film can be seen at best as a rambling, voluptuous search for the subjects and settings behind the painter's ghostlike, grotesque impressions. Through the eyes of a largely passive Goya (Stellan Skarsgård), we are witnesses of a fictitious story (screenplay: Jean-Claude Carrière). The political, religious and social insanity of an era plays itself out in the horrid fate of Goya's graceful muse Ines (Natalie Portman). For an inanity she has committed, she lands in the hands of the furious Father Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) and trapped in the workings of the Spanish Inquisition, from which she is only liberated by Napoleon's invasion after 15 tortured years. Deformed, full of lice and on the verge of mental insanity, she – having become a classic Goyaesque figure – stumbles through the next regime of terror in search of the child she had given birth to in the church prison.


In the spirit of Goya

Ralph Eue interviews director Milos Forman on his latest film "Goya's Ghosts"

Neue Zürcher Zeitung: Although the name Goya appears in the title of your film, he's hardly the central figure.

Milos Forman
: I can't stand bio pics. They're nothing more than celebrity magazines on celluloid. Goya is one of three central characters in my film. I tell a fictitious tale in which the painter plays a catalyst in the relationship between a fanatic young inquisitor and a merchant's daughter. The delivery of dramatic content rests on their shoulders.

Milos Forman. All photos © Tobis Film

How important is the accuracy of historical facts for you?

We take the moments of great stories as the currents that propel characters. Because these characters are independent people, robust, labile or sensitive to different degrees, events have varying effects on them. Historic facts are not the Bible for me, but simply material. Everything that happens in "Goya's Ghosts" has actually happened, but not necessarily to these people and in this order.

Did you want to tell a story of the Inquisition?

It's the background of the story, not the story itself.

And the torture methods that you portray?

The Inquisition in Spain lasted 200 years and a lot changed in this time. Take the martial interrogation technique, in which the hands of the guilty party were tied behind his back so that they could be hoisted. That was very common in the 16th century, but wasn't being used much by the end of 18th. I don't think I'm guilty of falsification if I show this kind of a torture scene in Goya's times. Peter Shaffer, the author with whom I wrote "Amadeus" once said to me: you don't have to swear an oath to the historic facts but rather to the spirit of them.

Natalie Portman as Ines

Seeing that you mention "Amadeus": Mozart and Goya lived and worked at roughly the same time. What draws you to this era, the 18th century?

The films have little to do with each other, largely because the characters of Goya and Mozart were presumably fundamentally very different. There is an abundant historical tradition on Mozart, which can be used to spawn further fantasies and on which we based our Amadeus. Goya was a closed person, he didn't keep a diary, he had few friends and wrote no letters. He seems to have reified himself in his pictures. On top of that, there was no united 18th century in Europe. Spain at the end of the 18th century is more comparable to Austria at the beginning of the 17th century. It was probably the French Revolution that brought about a more paralleled European history.

French revolutionaries arrive in Spain

You don't seem too confident about the historic ruptures that took place in Goya's time; the Enlightenment and the French Revolution seem to be less the launch of a bright future for mankind and more the promise of another kind of historic darkness.

When Napoleon came to Spain, he did away with the Inquisition and introduced the ideals of the French Revolution. All correct. But he had no idea that a fifth of all Spaniards were living off welfare which was organised by priests at the time. When the Napoleonic troops gathered up the church representatives, the people were appalled that they were taking away precisely those people who protected their modest existence. Do you think that Napoleon wasted a single thought on this welfare system? The liberators were often greeted by people with crossed arms who called: viva las cadenas. Long live the chains. The "divine power" was terrible for many people but it was more calculable than the new secular power.

Many of your earlier films have been about hard-headed characters, as unwieldy as they are charming. People who can't or don't want to conform. Your character Father Lorenzo, on the other hand, is a crafty opportunist.

I see Lorenzo as a power idealist who believes that he can make the power system useful. It goes without saying that he fails – anyone who believes this turns into a sorcerer's apprentice. But characters like Lorenzo make things happen. There's a nice term for this in German: "Wendehals". Such opportunists are the greatest accelerators of change in the history of mankind. They bundle energy and I find this bundling incredibly interesting.


This interview originally appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on November 20, 2006.

Translation: nb - let's talk european