Goya, a.k.a.
Goya in Bordeaux
directed by Carlos Saura
(Sony Pictures Classics, 1999)

Old and ill, deaf, tormented by demonic nightmares that have haunted him for years, painter Francisco Goya nears the end of his life in exile from his beloved Spain.

He's still painting by night, a crown of candles lighting his visions. He's not alone, living with his wife and their young daughter. But for Goya, nothing new remains but the reveries that haunt his paintings and his dreams.

Director Carlos Saura's Goya in Bordeaux is a color-charged, surreal, theatrical look at the last days of the brilliant Spanish artist. With the legendary Francisco Rabal (who died last year in Bordeaux) as Goya, a role he played before in younger days, the 1999 film is a lush dream more than it is a movie.

Saura tells the story of Goya's personal and artistic lives -- not that there's much separation -- through Goya's daydreams, the flashbacks emerging from the background or assembling themselves as tableaux, still-lifes from his prolific painting.

With translucent scrims, walls that appear and disappear with lighting techniques, staged scenes of battle and carnage, Goya in Bordeaux feels more like a play than a film. But it is one of the most scrumptious pieces of film in recent memory. Yet to follow it, it helps to know something of Goya (1746-1828) and his times. So let's turn to H.W. Janson of Art History 101 fame:

Inspired by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, Goya nonetheless was highly esteemed at the court of Charles IV and painted portraits of the royal family and its endless hangers-on. The bitter battles that ensued when French troops under Napoleon occupied Spain in 1808, political intrigues, hopes of liberal reforms crushed under military reality, are reflected in Goya's works like "The Third of May, 1808."

Those torments, combined with the struggles in his own mind, pushed Goya more and more into fantastical portraits of hallucinations and darkness. By the 1820s he was in voluntary exile in Bordeaux, France, and it is here that Saura's Goya allows the artist to reflect on his losses and his work.

In Rabal's hands, Goya's magnificent passions are never buried far beneath his frail surface. The only person he can truly connect with anymore is his young daughter Rosario, and even she, like so many women in Goya's life before her, finds both love and betrayal.

To Goya, imagination is everything:

"The imagination, without reason, brings forth impossible monsters," he tells young Rosario. "But joined to it, it is the mother of the arts and the source of marvels."

That imagination informs cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, whose light-infused magic has turned films like Apolcalypse Now, The Sheltering Sky, The Last Emperor and Reds into treasures of cinema moments not easily forgotten.

It's Storaro who's the real star of Goya, turning the masterworks of a passionate painter into masterworks of moving image.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 18 August 2002

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