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GOYA IN BORDEAUX (GOYA EN BURDEOS) (director/writer: Carlos Saura; cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro; editor: Julia Juaniz; cast: Francisco Rabal (Goya), Jose Coronado (Goya as a Young Man), Maribel Verdú (Duchess of Alba ), Dafne Fernández (Rosario), Eulalia Ramón (Leocadia), Joaquín Climent (Moratin), José María Pou (Godoy); Runtime: 105; Sony Pictures Classics; 1999-Spain)
“A visually pleasing but unmoving biopic of the 18th-century Spanish painter Francisco Goya.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A visually pleasing but unmoving biopic of the 18th-century Spanish painter Francisco Goya. The director, Carlos Saura, has had trouble with the storytelling part of his films in the past, as his great craftsmanship skills seem to far exceed his other abilities as a filmmaker.

The film opens in a surreal manner as a cow’s carcass seems to be dragging itself over a dirt red field to a scaffold, and then raises itself up as its flesh opens and its insides are exposed. It was Goya’s belief that man without imagination is only an animal, and this is the first lesson we are taught in this pedantic biopic. From the cow’s insides the appearance of a dying 82-year-old Goya (Rabal) emerges, startled that he’s lying in bed and living in exile in Bordeaux — France’s wine region.

Goya goes out in the street in his nightshirt and is thought of as a crazy foreigner by the passers-by, as he calls out for his dead former lover Cayetana (Maribel Verdú) after he thinks he sees her ghost in the street. Cayetana is the hot-blooded beauty he loved the most of all his many women conquests. Goya is soon watched over by his lovely young daughter Rosario (Dafne Fernández) and brought back to bed, where he’s forced to drink a cup of valerian. The artist is dazed but anxious to tell someone of his past and chooses to tell it to his daughter, as we will learn of his life from these flashbacks and he will also reveal his nightmares, the gossip of the times, the politics, the history, his romances, and his intellectual opinions.

The flashback will begin by taking us to Osuna’s salon, where the best minds and aristocracy of Madrid met. Goya (José Coronado) is in his mid-40’s, a womanizer, fortunate through his connections to be the court painter in Charles IV’s court, which is ruled by ignorance, corruption, and calumny. This gig enables Goya to get more commissions than he could handle and to live in luxury. He is seen talking to his treacherous friend Godoy (José María Pou) while admiring the pretty woman he wants to meet, the Dutchess of Alba, Cayetana. We learn about the romance between Cayetana and Goya, as a dialogue ensues between the ailing octogenarian and himself at this more youthful age. It was at that time that Goya nearly died from an unexplained illness that left him permanently deaf. His recovery from that illness resulted in an artistic breakthrough, whereby his subject matter became more realistic, resulting in his gruesome series of engravings “The Disasters of War.”

In the film’s most telling moments, Goya tells his daughter the truth about why he fled Spain. It has to do with the charismatic Dutchess, whose radiant beauty and excitable temperament led to dangerous actions on her part. Cayetana was part of a plot to assassinate the Spanish queen, Maria Luisa. But the jealous queen of the Inquisition instead had her poisoned to death with the help of the ambitious and scheming royal secretary Godoy, who was the lover of both women. The liberal Goya wisely saw the handwriting on the wall and fled his oppressive country, looking for comfort from the French intellectuals of the enlightenment; but, was in the end disappointed by France’s government, whose designs on Spain were mercenary and of self-interest.

In the final death scene the artist calls out not for his current lady companion Leocadia but for Cayetana, as he succumbs and her dark shadow emerges from a painting he did of her and covers him in death.

The film never touched base with the painter and his great works of art. It seemed like a dry lecture, with the artist’s paintings laboriously put on display making for some gorgeous framed shots but not offering the film an emotional base to build its story on. What we learn is that Goya was a flawed man, feeling himself to be cowardly and weak-spirited at times. He was greatly influenced by Velázquez and Rembrandt, and tried in his art to use his imagination tied to reason. But the film itself does not let on why we should assume Goya was a great painter, it seems to have failed the artist in that sense. The film ends with the quote from Andre Malraux: “After Goya, modern painting begins.” I was left with the impression that if this film would continue in its pedantic way of telling the story, it is possible in part 2 that we would know why that was so.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”