Judge Christopher Kulik not only enjoys Goya's paintings, but his fine line of hispanic-themed food products.
Or, the hard way to enlightenment.
"Ride to me as if the Inquisition was on your heels!"—Duchess of Alba
Facts of the Case
In late-18th century Madrid, the painter Francisco Goya has become a celebrated artist and has attained great wealth working for the royal family. While he has a family as well as a mistress, he enters into an affair with the Duchess of Alba, which arouses the suspicion of the Catholic Church. After the Duchess' husband dies, Goya accompanies her to her country home in Northern Spain, but enters a jealous rage over her involvement with a younger man. Thus, the painter seeks refuge into the country, where he garners sympathy for commoners and their treatment by the rich and powerful. This inspires him to draw the Caprichos, a haunting series of aquatint prints showcasing demon-like beings which would eventually outrage the Spanish Inquisition.
When I took a Humanities college class, I was exposed to Goya's work as a painter, yet I had forgotten. The art in question is May 3, 1808, which shows the horrifying moment before a squad of militia men gun down some individuals in the dead of night outside of a Spanish village. I even recall writing an essay comparing/contrasting the painting to the famous photograph "Execution in Saigon" by Eddie Adams, and those who have any knowledge of Vietnam history should know what I'm talking about. Regardless, it was May 3, 1808 which clued me into the fact that Francisco Goya was either a) a disturbed man or b) an artist who was making a disturbing statement about humanity. Konrad Wolf's staggering epic Goya focuses on the painter's life before that gruesome day when guerilla warfare rose up against French militia, and yet it does give us a vivid look into the rise and fall of the last of the Old Master painters.
The artist's childhood and early years are ignored, as we begin in the 1880s, soon after Goya had achieved national fame. While Spain was being governed by a monarchy, it was the Holy Inquisition which was determined to capture and punish every individual who even planned to commit heresy. Goya was hardly a subject to be elected to close scrutiny, but the film suggests otherwise soon after he's hired as Court Painter, and he begins his affair with the Duchess of Alba, despite being married and having two children. The director's unique style is evident in the opening palace ball where Goya sets eyes on the Duchess, and he expresses his wishes to paint her again; when she does eventually come to him, she does want to be painted but not with a brush.
Their liaison doesn't necessarily cause scandal, but director Wolf (Solo Sunny) and screenwriter Angel Wagenstein aren't so much interested in the history and fame as the man himself and what inspired him to create his works of art. There are two sequences alone which makes the picture worth seeing: his creations of The Nude Maja and The Clothed Maja (which some claim to be the Duchess but the film offers an alternate theory); and The Family of Charles IV, which critic Theophile Gautier amusingly refers to as a painting where the figures looking like "the corner baker and his wife after they've won the lottery." However, this is only the first half of the film, with the second providing the real dramatic meat and emotional juice. Light is shed on the checkered—and oft debated—relationship between Goya and the Duchess, his countryside convalescence and fever which led to his deafness, and the eventual summons to be examined by the Inquisition.
At times, Goya runs like a series of vignettes rather than a traditional biopic, yet attention is always paid. Much of this is due to the film's stunning production values, as well as the combined forces of three countries (Russia, Bulgaria, and the then-existing East Germany) to bring this chapter of Goya's life into focus. The cinematography, music, costumes, and opulent sets are all world class, with tremendous support by an acting ensemble comprised of eight (!) different nationalities. According to the screenwriter, one of the challenges during filming was dealing with all the different languages on the set; the film's primary language is German, although he stipulates that Bulgarian was utilized at several points, mainly by Tatjana Lolowa, who plays Queen Maria Amalia. In addition, much of the film was shot in Bulgaria, as the Spanish government refused entry for the crew; the only sequence which was shot in Madrid, was the bullfight, a sneaky maneuver to be sure.
One of Goya's highlights is the sterling performance offered by Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis in the title role. Appropriately stout and gruff, Banionis is towering every second he's on screen, providing just the right amount of pathos and poignancy to this artist awash with passion. Matching him is the lovely Olivera Katarina (from Yugoslavia) as the unsympathetic, extraordinarily vain Duchess, as well as Mieczyslaw Voit's deliciously nasty turn as the Grand Inquisitor. Still, the real genius behind Goya is the late Konrad Wolf, who was not only able to open a compelling window into the troubled artist's life, but also thrust a huge middle finger at the history of Catholicism, with the monolith of ignorance known as the Inquisition attacked with full, brutal force. Banionis and a host of unknown actors make the interrogation sequence an unforgettable centerpiece, making one's head shake continuously over the religious censorship and control of the time.
First Run Features has served as the sole source for these former DDR films to see the light of digital day, and Goya is one of their best offerings yet. The glorious period picture has been triumphantly restored, with very little grain or scratches noticed in the margins. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the colors are bright and bold, with flesh tones and details both remarkably sharp. Equally solid is the 5.1 Surround track (in German with English subtitles), which beautifully mixes the music and sound effects with exceptional clarity. The extras are slim but quite worthwhile, with two interviews being offered. The first, running 12 minutes, is with actress Tatjana Lolowa and the second, running 18 minutes, is with screenwriter Angel Wagenstein, who had adapted a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger. The casting process and production stories are offered, with the most intriguing bit of trivia offered by Wagenstein: he and Wolf took a Crucible-like route while making Goya in that they consequently attack the Socialist system at the time as much as the Inquisition in Goya's time. Good stuff!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Historians and Goya devotees are certain to have their own little nitpicks about how the film visualizes and writes off its subject. My only real complaint is the slight overlength, as certain details could have been easily left on the cutting room floor, tightening up the narrative. Perfect example: a comic sequence with Goya retrieving the King's toy boat and ordered to take part in a wrestling match with the monarch. It's certainly funny, but it's a radical change in tone and is ultimately unnecessary.
I would be hard pressed to find a better filmed version of the painter's life, although I still have yet to see Goya's Ghosts, the 2006 film directed by Academy Award winner Milos Forman (Amadeus). Regardless, Konrad Wolf's little-known version remains a visual spectacle full of fame, lust, and glory, embracing freedom of expression through art as a genuine gift.
The film is found not guilty, with First Run Features free to go.
Court is adjourned!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
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