Magazine article The New Yorker

GHOSTLY; the Pictures

Magazine article The New Yorker

GHOSTLY; the Pictures

Article excerpt

When Milos Forman was a student in Prague, more than fifty years ago, he read a book about the Spanish Inquisition that gave him an idea for a film. Great idea, just one teensy problem: the Inquisition part. "In Czechoslovakia the same things were happening," Forman said one day recently. "People were being arrested and then confessing to crimes they hadn't committed. But if I had even mentioned to anyone, 'I want to make a film of the Inquisition'--I would have been branded an enemy of the state." Thirty years later, in Madrid, he visited the Prado and saw paintings by Francisco Goya, whose life coincided with the final chapters of the Inquisition. "In one room," Forman recalled, "you see Goya's depictions of desperation and darkness--the Black Paintings of the destitute, the powerless. In the next room, his magnificent portraits of dukes and kings." Which led to this amplified idea: Inquisition plus Goya plus French Revolution plus some overreaching by Napoleon, then Wellington, ecclesiastical and royal intrigues, human degradation, etc.--on balance, not the most sure-thing pitch in Hollywood, though it didn't hurt that Forman possessed two Best Director Oscars (for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus"). Another couple of decades passed and he and the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere had a script. The resulting film, "Goya's Ghosts," Forman's first in eight years, opens this week.

The least crowded public venue in New York for looking at a Goya painting is the Frick Collection. When Forman showed up there on a sunny weekday morning, he wore a red-and-white striped shirt, navy striped pants, and a surgical corset. At seventy-five, he's fit enough to keep up with his eight-year-old twin sons, as long as he's not nursing a fractured vertebra. ("Never get up in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar hotel room without first turning on the light.") He bought an admission ticket, learned at the information desk that two of the Frick's four Goyas were temporarily out of circulation, then made his leisurely way through the collection. In the library, he momentarily mistook a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington for a Goya portrait of his brother-in-law Francisco Bayeu. The real things, it turned out, were in the West Gallery--on one wall, between two Turners, the portrait "Don Pedro, Duke of Osuna," one of Goya's principal patrons, and, across the way, "The Forge," his famous rendering of blacksmiths at work.

"You see the difference between how he paints the face of a nobleman and the faces of the common folk," Forman said. …

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