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MOVIES | THE DIRECTOR'S CRAFT

History's weird ghosts, echoes

In `Goya,' Milos Forman tackles guerrilla warfare and injustice. So topical.

July 15, 2007|Paul Cullum | Special to The Times

"I don't care if people are Democrats or Republicans, communists or anti-communists," says director Milos Forman. "I divide people between those I am afraid of and those I am not. Once you have lived under the Nazis and the Communists, you learn these kinds of things."

The official portraitist of "Amadeus" and "The People vs. Larry Flynt" will return to theaters Friday with "Goya's Ghosts," a costume drama and controlled historical epic that marks his first film since the Andy Kaufman biopic "Man on the Moon" in 1999. Yet rather than a meta-portrait of the great court painter of Spanish royalty Francisco Goya, "Goya's Ghosts" chronicles the long tail of the Spanish Inquisition, the "liberation" of Spain at the hands of Napoleon and the subsequent expulsion of the imported French Revolution by a guerrilla uprising, in conjunction with the British Duke of Wellington and the Catholic clergy.

The story is told through the eyes of the premier artist of the era, or what art critic Robert Hughes, in his definitive biography "Goya," called "the first modern visual reporter on warfare." And as structured by screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, who collaborated with Luis Bunuel, Louis Malle and Volker Schlondorff, among others, these rather dry historical events create a startling allegory for modern geopolitical adventurism -- a subject the 75-year-old director has had much time to reflect on as of late.

Forman is recovering at his farm in Connecticut from a cracked vertebra incurred in his native Czech Republic, where he recently returned to stage his first opera, "A Walk Worthwhile," at the National Theater, a version of which he directed for Czech television in 1966, two years before the "Prague Spring" revolution and subsequent Soviet crackdown made his position there untenable. (As to his injury, Forman advises, "Don't go to the minibar in the night without turning the lights on.")

'Put to the question'

AS "Goya's Ghosts" opens, clerics can be seen furtively studying Goya's "Disasters of War" series of surreptitious etchings, published only after the artist's death, and volubly lamenting, "This is how the world sees us." Inquisitor Javier Bardem rejects Voltaire, and with him all of Enlightenment thought, as "the dark prince of the darkest principles" and labels talk of "atoms" and modern science diabolical. Natalie Portman's character is "put to the question," the church's palliative euphemism for interrogation and torture, and imprisoned for 15 years because of a gross misunderstanding. And the proto-American Randy Quaid, as Spain's King Carlos IV, takes to hunting vultures (which are drawn to him by the carcass of a dead sheep, no less). It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to find Abu Ghraib, global warming, the detaining of terror suspects at Guantanamo and elsewhere, in not too veiled subtext.

And yet for all the film's modern parallels, its director seems like he wishes such pointed analogies would just go away.

"I am myself confused to talk about these things," says Forman. "I feel like I have to apologize now for making this movie, to explain to everybody that the final screenplay for this film was finished months before the Iraq war. I didn't put these parallels into place myself. History put these parallels into the story."

Forman has come by such political reticence the hard way. Born in 1932 in Prague, he was 7 when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia at the onset of WWII. Both his parents died in Auschwitz: His father was a Jewish army reservist from WWI and university teacher accused of disseminating forbidden literature to his students. His Protestant mother's only apparent crime was shopping at a local grocery where the Germans discovered anti-Nazi propaganda. According to Forman, based on his search of postwar records, although his mother was acquitted at trial, her case file was stamped "Return Undesirable," and she disappeared into the camps.

In 1948, Czechoslovakia formally fell under the control of the Soviet Union, and for the next two decades Forman quietly negotiated the gradually loosening rules of official conduct. In the mid-'60s, he directed a series of gentle satires of bureaucratic inefficiency and the changing times that became international hits, particularly "Black Peter," "The Loves of a Blonde" and "The Firemen's Ball." Of his most famous film, which won best picture and best director Oscars, Forman says, " 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' is a Czech movie. It was not a fiction for me; I lived that. For me, the Communist Party was Nurse Ratched."

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