At the climax of Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , R.P. McMurphy, the irascible antihero who believed time in a madhouse was preferable to time in the Big House, has succeeded in making life miserable for a psychiatric hospital’s staff and tolerable for its inmates. But after almost strangling to death Nurse Ratched (if concentration camps had librarians, they would be modeled on Nurse Ratched), McMurphy¯as played by Jack Nicholson the very definition of manic ¯is quite literally lobotomized, one of the most drastic examples of a “time out” in film history. This succeeds not only in tranquilizing McMurphy but also in giving the Chief, a usually sullen giant of a Native American, the courage to escape the asylum-prison, which he does by means of tossing a sink through a gated window.
And that’s how the film ends, with the Chief running, running, running away. Free at last from tyranny, injustice, and a sea of porcelain.
But I remember wondering at the time¯Where the hell is he going? He’s a six-foot-seven-inch Indian in hospital duds who has just escaped from a mental institution. Does he grab a cab somewhere? Sign up for some continuing-education classes?
He’s free¯but to do what?
Forman has spent most of his considerable film career making more or less the same movie, one about nonconformists who throw sinks through the windows of their particular prisons. Think Hair, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon ¯tributes to the anarchic spirit, whether moonchildren, pornographers, or comedians with very strange senses of humor. Consider even Amadeus : putatively about God’s arbitrary bestowal of gifts, it is just as much about how mediocrity is forever in the service of the Establishment, while genius can only flourish when permitted room to flout convention¯artistic and societal. Given that Forman’s parents were murdered in Auschwitz (his father was Jewish and his mother a Protestant; both were members of a resistance movement), and that Soviet tanks put an end both to the Prague Spring and a burgeoning film career in his native Czechoslovakia, it’s not hard to understand where the filmmaker’s affection for a little anarchy comes from.
As for Goya’s Ghosts , Forman’s latest, one goes into the theater expecting more of the same. Well, yes and no. And what’s different in this colorful and ludicrous film may be a window onto a liberal spirit mugged by history.
It’s Spain of the 1790s, and the Holy Office, aka the Inquisition, is in session. Among the Judaizers, Protestants, devotees of Voltaire, and other miscreants infecting Spain with the bacillus of dissent, there is Francisco Goya, an artist of no mean talent for social commentary. While many among the Holy Office are disturbed by how the artist depicts the suffering of the Spanish people under ecclesiastical and aristocratic despotism, one monk, Brother Lorenzo, played with a disarming laconic dignity by Javier Bardem, begs to differ. He thinks it is useful that such a one is holding a mirror up to contemporary Spain¯if for no other reason that it demonstrates the vital importance of tightening the thumbscrews on those seeking to undermine the Motherland’s integrity. (Brother Lorenzo laments the fact that there has been the execution of a mere eight heretics in fifty years¯a ratio to make angels weep and freethinkers snort with derision.)
We soon find out that Brother Lorenzo is also one of Goya’s patrons; in fact, the artist is in the process of completing a portrait of the good brother, a hefty canvass that captures what can only be described as a brooding and somewhat sinister mien.
Also among Goya’s clients is an aristocratic family whose daughter, Ines, played by the wildly miscast Natalie Portman, is caught in the ever-widening net of the Inquisition’s stepped-up heresy hunt. You see, Ines refused pork at a tavern¯the unmistakable sign of a Judaizer, someone whose family had converted from Judaism to Catholicism generations ago but who nevertheless continues to practice "Jewish rituals."
She denies the charge, and so the Holy Officers decide she must be "put to the question." Being put to the question entails having your hands tied behind your back and being raised off the ground by the wrists. If you are lying, the pain will bring this out. If you are telling the truth, God will give you the strength to bear the pain, and you will be vindicated. (How much pain you are expected to bear is never discussed, presumably because everyone "put to the question" confesses eventually.)
And so Ines confesses to being a Judaizer, a word she heard for the first time that day. She is consequently locked up¯naked¯in a subterranean hellhole.
Ines’ family, frantic to learn of the girl’s disposition, invites Brother Lorenzo and Goya to dinner, hoping to buy some influence with the monk by offering to donate a considerable sum to the Church on the condition that her daughter be released. When Brother Lorenzo explains that such acts of mercy are not within his power¯and, after all, she was put to the question and was proven a Judaizer¯Ines’ father puts the monk to the question, literally hanging Lorenzo by the wrists from a chandelier until he finally confesses to being not a monk but a monkey who only has the appearance of being a man, a common Satanic trick.
Well, a newly motivated Brother Lorenzo tries but fails to save Ines, and when Ines’ father brings the signed monkey confession to the attention of his Holy Office superiors, the monk¯now considered an agent of the devil¯hightails it for France, where the Revolution is more likely to look upon monkey-to-man transmogrifications with greater leniency.
O who will save Spain from herself? Well, how about Napoleon, who invades in order to put his brother Joseph on the throne and thereby bring a tyrannized, backward nation still trapped in the Middle Ages into the bright light of the nineteenth century. The emperor is absolutely certain that the average Spaniard in the street will greet his or her liberators with cheers and tears¯as did the enlightened middle classes in Italy and elsewhere. But as anyone who has studied the etymology of the word guerilla knows, His Diminutive Highness did not know that a Spaniard has, if art historian Robert Hughes is correct , but one ultimate allegiance, one real faith¯that of being an unalloyed Spaniard above all else.
In the end, the enlightened French prove even more barbarous than the primogenitured tyrants of Spain. Raping, murdering, and pillaging the emperor’s men go as they usher in a new world order, which looks just as bad as the old world order, only with less time off for Christmas. The Holy Office is abolished and the heretics left to rot in its prisons are released into the sun, including young Ines, who, 15 years older, looks like a woman of eighty. She is wretched and barely lucid but nevertheless determined to do one thing: find her baby. Yes, while in prison she gave birth to a little girl, who was quickly whisked away only God knows where.
Who manages to hitch a ride with the French army back to his native land? None other than Brother Lorenzo¯now thoroughly laicized, secularized, enlightened, and liberated, with a wife and kiddies to boot. He assumes a new position of power with the so-called liberators¯a true believer once again, but this time in the cause of progress.
But the former monk has a secret: He is the father of Ines’ child, having forced himself on her when she was in chains. Given his new Voltairean outlook on life, he decides that the only rational thing to do is to declare Ines insane and have her put away in a madhouse. Meanwhile, his friend Goya, disgusted at Lorenzo’s indifference, sets out to find the lost little girl, named Alicia. He traces her to a convent, only to learn that she ran away years ago. He eventually finds her in a park, grown, a prostitute, and the spitting image of her mother, if for no other reason that she is played by her mother, that is, by Natalie Portman. Once Lorenzo learns that the girl is alive and "working," he plots to have her shipped off to the new world as an indentured servant. Ah what the mind won’t conceive once it has been released from the shackles of superstition.
Fortunately for Alicia, the French are eventually swept out of power by a British military force led by Wellington, aided and abetted by a desiccated but determined Spanish army and those relentless guerrillas who would rather have their old bad government than the new atheistic one. Once the Brits put the ruthless Bourbon nitwit Ferdinand VII back on the throne, and the Holy Office is reopened for business, Lorenzo is arrested and sentenced to death. He is hauled out into the streets, jeered and insulted by the crowds, as Ines’ daughter, having escaped exile with a wink in the right direction, now on the arm of one of Wellington’s own soldiers, watches from a balcony, never realizing that the man being implored to make his peace with God is her very own father.
What are we to make of this? That people simply don’t change? A fanatic for the Church becomes, under different environment and motivation, a fanatic for the philosophes ? Goya himself works both sides of the fence under the old regime¯commenting with sympathy about the plight of his oppressed countrymen but never to the point of alienating his rich and powerful patrons, who protect him from official retribution. He continues to ply his wares under the French and will continue to do so under the British-restored throne. He straddles history like Queen Maria Luisa does her horse ¯and the results are no prettier. He paints purely on commission, servicing reactionary and revolutionary alike, for which he gains the epithet whore from Lorenzo. Hughes, while conceding a certain moral cowardice on the artist’s part, nevertheless situates Goya among the enlightened set, an artist who¯to use a modern phrase¯pushed the envelope by capturing on canvas the details of common suffering and the true depridations of war.
But if that were the case, that human nature was composed of adamantine stuff, you would have expected Lorenzo finally to acquiesce to his Inquisitors’ entreaties to be reconciled to the Church and thereby spare his own life. As the ultimate conformist, Lorenzo should have accepted absolution and a chance to connive another day. But he refuses. He stands firm, whether out of loyalty to his Enlightenment beliefs or out of contempt for his fellow Spaniards’ intransigence, he refuses to kiss the crucifix offered to him and so is strangled to death.
The film ends shortly thereafter, with Lorenzo, freed finally from history’s endless cycles of violence, being wheeled away on a tumbril, Ines following closely, as mad as McMurphy was sane, carrying an abandoned baby she believes, wrongly, to be her own.
The casting of Goya’s Ghosts is eccentric to the point of absurdity. Granted, a director who sees Mozart in Thomas Hulce¯"Pinto" of Animal House fame¯is bound to defy expectations. (Then again, if you’re going to depict the composer as a crude, irascible child, Hulce makes a certain kind of sense—though do you ever seriously believe for one minute that such a creature could carry a tune, never mind compose Don Giovanni ?) In this case, Natalie Portman looks like she dropped straight out of Beverly Hills High into a Merchant-Ivory picture gone terribly wrong. (I mean, why not cast Lindsey Lohan and be done with it.) Now add false choppers and a black wig so she can play her own teenage daughter, and it’s “Jerry Lewis call your office.”
But the death blow to this film is the casting of Stellan Skarsgard as Goya. On what planet? Aside from the fact that you never get beyond the idea that you’re watching Prof. Lambeau of Good Will Hunting play the Spanish master (especially when Bardem in the role would have opened up all other kinds of possibilities), the film would have us believe that he is a great artist because, well, because it says so, and look at all those pretty pictures (who do you think painted them?). Forman’s script illuminates little of the dark¯and after 1793 deaf¯genius who produced Saturn Devouring His Children . Yes, we’re shown the master’s works, just as we hear Mozart’s music in Amadeus ; but no artistic process, no calling on the muses (other than occasional glimpses at a stunning portrait of Ines), is dramatized for us. (Think Ed Harris in Pollock and you know that this is not inevitable¯though I am not now nor would I ever put Jackson Pollock on the level of a Goya.)
In any event, having expected Forman to trot out the typical liberal shibboleths¯repression and hierarchies bad; freedom and self-expression good¯you’re instead left asking, Who really is free here? Has Forman decided that there simply are people in this world who are not up to freedom’s demands? The Spanish of the nineteenth century, say, or perhaps the Iraqis of today (several critics have seen a not-so-subtle allusion to President Bush’s attempt to bring freedom and enlightenment to the Middle East). Imagine a Cuckoo’s Nest where instead of the Chief running loose into the world to find his way¯wherever and however¯the film ended with the lobotomized McMurphy lying on his bed, staring blankly into the lights.
Perhaps we were meant only to imagine a "free" Spain; but unlike Robert Hughes, who contemplates a Spain that had embraced the Enlightenment’s secular creeds and opened itself to the world, closed itself to religious fanaticism, and spared itself a horrendous Civil War, Forman is not as sanguine about the benefits of revolution. (Remember, the Czechs saw Hitler vanquished only to have Stalin’s tanks replace him.)
Maybe the point was to picture a Spain ruled not by kings or emperors or even "enlightened" constitutions but by Francisco Goyas. But what would that entail? A leader with eyes open to the suffering in the streets but still too weak to see past his own pecuniary needs to take a stand¯and completely deaf to the basic human need for meaning , producing a culture as self-obsessed and aimless as, well, so much of the West’s is now?
Or is it that Forman simply does not believe in the liberation of peoples, just individual persons?
It’s possible I’m reading way too much into this strangely fascinating yet admittedly overwrought and at times downright goofy work. It’s possible Goya’s Ghosts is nothing more than an apologia for indifferentism at best and nihilism at worst, with death as the only doorway to liberation. Which, ironically, coming from a champion of the free spirit, would be a message to thrill only a terrorist’s heart.
Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of First Things .