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Goya’s Ghosts (Europe 2006, U.S. 2007) a film by Miloš Forman with Natalie Portman, Javier Bardem and Stellan Skarsgård.
On the recommendation of some European friends, I just secured the DVD edition of Goya’s Ghosts which was released on February 29. This is an extraordinary and brilliantly conceived film on several fronts—it is an “art” film of sorts, attuned to European sensibilities, but I am told that Forman created it as a “message for America.” There is no mistaking the central thrust of the script, which is directed to the same issue that dominated Spain in 1792 and America today: the state-sponsored use of torture.
The film is loosely based on events from the life of Francisco Goya, probably the greatest of the painters who stood on the threshold of the modern era. For modern audiences, Goya’s graphic depiction of human brutalization—the so-called “black paintings”—have achieved an iconographic quality. Goya was arguably the first painter to systematically portray the mistreatment of human beings at the hands of the state. His images are horrific, nightmarish and unforgettable. Forman’s film gives us Goya as a peripheral character; on the other hand, Goya’s artistic work is the focus of the film. It’s greater mission is to give us a glimpse of the world that led Goya to create the “black paintings,” to put them in a social, political and moral context.
Goya was concerned with man’s inhumanity towards man. But there are two sets of horrors in particular that hover in the background of the “black paintings.” The first is the brutality inflicted on the Spanish people by the French (Napoleonic) invasion and conquest and then by the Peninsular War, as British forces drove the French out. But the second, which forms the film’s proper focus, is the work of the Holy Office, better known as the Spanish Inquisition. As the film opens, senior officials of the Inquisition are examining copies of prints by Goya which portray the work of the Inquisition in its proper barbarity. There is discussion about how to strike against Goya, but also recognition that as the painter to the king, he is a protected person. A discussion follows about technique. Under pressure from reformers, some of the more infamous practices of the Inquisition had been suspended. But the threat presented by the French Revolution in fact led to the reinstitution of torture practices in 1792.
The film gives us the case of a muse of Goya’s, the daughter of a prosperous Madrid merchant, who is brought before the Inquisition. Her crime? She had been seen in a tavern refusing to eat pork, and one of her ancestors many generations back was a converso, thus was taken for a crypto-Jew. This may seem absurd to a modern audience, but in fact this corresponds to well-established practice of the Holy Office at this time. The woman, the beautiful Inés, is interrogated and then “put to the question.”
That phrase, the use of which is also well documented, referred to the use of several different torture practices, the most common of which involved tying the victim’s hands and suspending her from a rope. This frequently dislocated arms and caused immense pain. The technique is known in Italian and Spanish as “strappado,” and as used by Germans during the Second World War II it was called “Pfahlbinden.” As used by American interrogators today it is called a “stress position.” Its use in dozens of incidents as part of the “program” authorized by President Bush has been well documented.
In the film, Natalie Portman is stripped naked (which was the practice of the Inquisition, and is today the practice of U.S. intelligence operatives) and subjected repeatedly to a stress position as she was asked to confess that she was a crypto-Jew.
The focal point of the film comes during a dinner party at which Inés’s father, the wealthy merchant Tomas Bilbatua, makes an impassioned plea for the release of his daughter. He learns that his daughter has been “put to the question” and has “confessed” to being a crypto-Jew. An officer of the Inquisition explains the view of the Church about this practice: a faithful Christian will find grace through God to resist the agony of torture and to continue to deny the accusation if innocent. Of course, the records of the Inquisition show that this process virtually never found anyone innocent—all who were “put to the question” confessed to whatever their captors wanted to hear.
As the film develops, that point is made very plainly. The Enlightenment taught the world the premise that torture could be applied to learn the truth was a radical falsehood. Torture was, rather, a tool of the tyrant that produced only misery and injustice. It destroyed human will and allowed the tyrant to claim whatever “truths” he chose.
Moving forward two hundred years, there is little that separates the Bush Administration from the Inquisition. Indeed, its pig-headedness on questions surrounding the use of torture techniques and its false faith in their use to extract truth show an amazing continuity in barbarity masquerading as civilization.
The church took another century to come to these realizations. It had adapted torture from the secular world, for torture was an institution of the Roman times, and its use was widespread in the Middle Ages. In the time of the religious wars, the use of torture was very widespread. Ultimately the church recognized that torture was both ineffective as a tool for gathering intelligence and an intrinsic evil. It renounced the use of torture and declared its prior teachings false.
Forman’s film is dazzling. It does little to develop Goya as a man, and he was an extraordinarily complex figure. But it does provide a long promenade through his work—both his official portraiture, and the darker more menacing visions which were his private passion. Forman has meticulously recreated several of Goya’s better known paintings as scenes, including Carlos IV and the famous equestrian portrait of his wife; the wartime execution scene in the painting entitled “The Third of May 1808.” But the most amazing and visually arresting of these recreations is a trial by the Inquisition after the French were driven out and Ferdinand VII was restored (“The Tribunal of the Inquisition,” 1812). Forman recreates this painting as the film’s dramatic conclusion.
Goya’s ghosts have left Europe, perhaps. But they’re alive and well in George W. Bush’s America. And this makes Goya’s Ghosts a film that every American needs to see.
More from Scott Horton:
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