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                                                “Goya’s Ghosts”


            Spain , 1789.  Nobody yet realizes how strongly the wind of change is blowing in the world.  Francisco Goya is happily painting a portrait of a striking young woman named Ines (Natalie Portman) in his studio.  She carries that self-possessed look of someone who has been told all her life that she is beautiful.  Her father is a wealthy and influential merchant.  She acts as if the world is her oyster, and thinks nothing of frequenting a bawdy tavern with her brothers.  She underestimates how the irresistible force of concupiscence can meet the immovable object of jealousy, and result in a collision so violent as to shake her world to its foundations.

            The Inquisition is enjoying a revival in a Spain so strongly Catholic that people go around kissing the rings of priests.  The clergy, representing the very authority of God on earth, are given virtually absolute power, which, of course, corrupts absolutely.  If they can’t discover heresy directly, they’ll arrest someone on mere suspicion and torture them until they confess, heedless of the reality that people will say anything to stop the pain, unctuously proclaiming that if they were speaking the truth, God would give them the strength to withstand.  And so the lovely, innocent girl Ines is tortured into confessing that she is a “Judaizer,” because she declined to eat pork in the tavern, instead ordering chicken.  Her sentence is swift and non-commutable.  She rots in prison awaiting a trial that will never happen. 

            Meanwhile, her distraught father, desperate for news of her, enlists the officious priest Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) to inquire about her well-being.  He takes advantage of her delicate psyche, ostensibly praying with her, but soon rendering her into an even more delicate condition.  He, of course, is unrepentant, smugly conveying to her family the deceit that she is being treated well in prison.  When Lorenzo gets a taste of his own torturous medicine, we find ourselves believing that a certain kind of vigilante justice was served, but he soon escapes, while the French Revolution fans the flame of chaos throughout the land.  Goya’s grotesque renderings prefigure the cubism of Picasso in their hideous distortions, even as the landscape of human decency suffers the rapacious conquests of Napoleon, who precipitously invades Spain , installing his brother as the new King, haughtily preaching to the Spanish people that he is their deliverer.  They, of course, seem him for who he is:  a conscienceless dictator seeking only to expand his Empire over the corpses of those foolhardy enough to resist.  But resist they do, even enlisting the aid of the hated English.

            Meanwhile, our formerly gorgeous young lady is left to waste away in chains, and when she is finally freed by the conquering French, she seeks only the daughter they took away from her so many lonely years ago.  Goya tries to help her, but she is half-crazed with the results of her lengthy confinement, and she is devastated by the discovery that her family has been slaughtered and all their possessions confiscated.  Lorenzo rides in with the French army, somehow now the spokesman for their Revolutionary fervor, but when faced with the embarrassment of his previous indulgence, he seeks to discard the evidence, by rounding up all the hapless orphans-turned-prostitutes and shipping them off to America (something about the huddled masses yearning to breathe free…).

            But the tides of war again undergo a sea change, as the hated French are overthrown, and this time Lorenzo is tried by the same clergy whom he had summarily imprisoned when he enjoyed secular authority.  Ines crazily imagines that they can begin anew as one big, happy family.  Meanwhile, the teenage daughter she’s never met is not afraid to use her wiles to attract the attention of an English officer, and somehow the disproportionate outlines of Goya’s Ghosts seem to better represent reality than the solemn, stiff, portraits of pretentious royalty that earned his miserable living.

            “Goya’s Ghosts” is the kind of film that will not be popular with church audiences, because it features cruel personal violence, gratuitous nudity, lots of victims but no heroes, and presents the Church at its absolutely depraved worst.  Nevertheless, there are some valuable reminders here for the believers, not the least of which is that that which we so solemnly believe to be righteous may very well turn out to merely our own pitiful pride.


Questions For Discussion:

1)      How much influence should the Church have over the culture?

2)       What can the Church proclaim with certainty, and when is it obligated to admit a lack of expertise?

3)      When is the Church at its best, and when is it at its worst?

4)      To what extent should the Church teach that its doctrine is the only way to salvation?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Terrell , Texas