Mustang


"Break out up the middle on three. Ready? Break!"

“Break out up the middle on three. Ready? Break!”

(2015) Drama (Cohen) Gűnes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihal G. Koldas, Ayberk Pekcan, Bahar Kerimoglu, Burak Yigit, Erol Afsin, Suzanne Marrot, Serife Kara, Aynur Komecoglu, Serpil Reis, Rukiye Sariahmet, Kadir Celebi, Muzeyyen Celebi. Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergűven

In a patriarchal society, women are often seen as little more than brood mares and chattel, auctioned off to the highest bidder and made as marriageable as possible in order to take them off the hands of their poor parents who must pay for their care and feeding, the sooner the better. While the world is evolving in general from such beliefs, in more rural areas of certain parts of the world, these attitudes persist.

Lale (Sensoy) is the youngest of five orphaned sisters living with their grandmother (Koldas) in a compound-like home in a small seaside town in Northern Turkey. Walking home from school, they encounter some boys who are friends (not boyfriends) by the beach and decide to go swimming, still in their school clothes. Their innocent childish games catch the attention of an elderly woman who reports their behavior as obscene and libidinous to their grandmother, who proceeds to initiate beatings for all five sisters.

Their brute of an Uncle Erol (Pekcan) proceeds to put the house on lockdown, turning a beautiful home into a virtual prison – a wife-making factory in fact in which the five sisters are removed from school, taught classes in sewing, tea-making and essentially home economics. Uncle Erol and grandmother move quickly to arrange marriages for the eldest, then the others in turn.

In the meantime the high-spirited girls have trouble adjusting to their newfound confinement, growing bold and concerned about the future they have in store that is being made for them without any input from the girls themselves. In heartbreaking fashion, they slowly break as their world shrinks to the confines of their barred and gated home and their purpose in life to please husbands they haven’t even met. Only Lale, the youngest and the most outspoken of the bunch, seems to have any spirit left.

This is an impressive film that was France’s official submission for the Foreign Language Film category, making the Oscar shortlist (as of this writing the Awards haven’t been presented yet) and being nominated for the same award in the Golden Globes as well. The nomination is well-deserved. Ergűven weaves a spell-binding tale that not only exposes the archaic attitudes towards women that exists in certain Muslim-dominated countries but also our own, lest we forget the attitudes of the Christian right having to do with abortion and female sexuality.

Ergűven cast the film wisely, particularly with Sensoy whose jaw-jutting petulance mark her Lale as an utter handful. She’s demanding and opinionated, something not tolerated well in traditional Muslim households when regarding women. In fact, that’s where the film title comes from; Lale is untamed and unbroken, although the same doesn’t remain true for all of her sisters as the marriage train comes to pluck them one-by-one, Ten Little Indians-fashion.

The five actresses with their long flowing brunette locks look like sisters and act like them too. Few films I’ve seen really capture the dynamic of sisters as well, from the bawdy teasing to the occasional rivalry and bitter fights. All five of the sisters are beautiful and not just physically; they have an inner beauty that radiates from them like an angelic glow.

Frequent Nick Cave collaborator Warren Ellis contributes the synth-heavy score, and it is very effective, never intruding on the viewer but always beautiful and haunting. Cinematographers David Chizallet and Ersin Gok take advantage of the bucolic Turkish village, making it seem almost idyllic until we see the ugliness beneath.

If I have one criticism of the movie, it’s that the editing is a bit choppy, going from scene to scene in abrupt cuts that wrench the viewer from one scene to the next. It makes the film a little bit like an old car with a bad engine and a flat tire, lurching from scene to scene. A little defter hand on the editing  bay might have made for a smoother viewing experience but at the same time, that does feel a little bit like the kind of vehicle you’d find in a town like this; well past its prime, beaten up but getting you where you need to go despite the problems.

I won’t say this is a beautiful movie, even though it looks beautiful; some of the scenes are very ugly indeed, with young girls being examined for their virginity, an indignity that American girls don’t have to tolerate. However, this is an incredibly moving and thought-provoking movie that will stay with you long after the movie is over. All five of the sisters – yes, albeit that not all of them are as well-drawn as Lale – are still with me even though I saw the movie days ago. And I’m not in a terrible hurry to ask them to leave, either.

REASONS TO GO: A look at a rarely-glimpsed culture. Forces you to examine attitudes towards women in general. Breaks your heart as the movie goes on.
REASONS TO STAY: The editing is a little choppy.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are quite adult; there’s also some mild sexuality and a rude gesture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut of director Deniz Gamze Ergűven.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fiddler on the Roof
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Forest

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The Wolfpack


Tougher than the rest.

Tougher than the rest.

(2015) Documentary (Magnolia) Bhagavan Angulo, Govinda Angulo, Jagadisa Angulo, Krisna Angulo, Mukunda Angulo, Naryana Angulo, Visnu Angulo, Oscar Angulo, Susanne Angulo. Directed by Crystal Moselle

Sometimes we all want to shut the world out. Just let it go on doing what it does outside the safety and security of our homes; we just need a little break. What would you do, though, if you were forced to live that way – isolated from the world, limited in contact to a few outings a year and from what you see from movies?

That’s just how the seven kids of the Angulo family were raised. In a government housing complex in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Oscar and Susanne Angulo chose to keep their children inside the apartment day in and day out, refusing to allow them to venture outdoors other than on special occasions. Sometimes the boys get to leave their apartment three or four times a year; some years, they don’t make it out at all. Oscar, a Peruvian Hare Krishna, was unrealistically paranoid about the outside world and wanted to protect his children from it. His wife went along, at first because she too was concerned but later because she was intimidated by her husband.

That leaves the boys to figure things out on their own. Against all odds, they turn out to be articulate, congenial and intelligent boys, much of which is a testament to the homeschooling they received from their mom. All of them have been given names from Sanskrit legends and mythology and none of them have been allowed to cut their hair when we first meet them, their locks cascading down to their waists. They have the distinctive Andean features of their father, but none of them seem disposed to like him very much.

And with good reason; he’s not really a likable guy. For much of the movie he sits in his room, isolating himself from his family and only coming out on occasion, rarely seeing much of the family initially. He’s often compared to a jailer and the home to a prison which seems accurate enough. Somewhat unbelievably, as part of his world view, he refuses to work because doing so plays into the hands of the industrialist elite, so he and his seven children live off of government aid programs and the stipend they get for Susanne’s homeschooling.

Yet they have a library of (they claim) 5,000 films on VHS and DVD which I suspect is an exaggeration; I didn’t see any sort of storage in the small four-bedroom apartment that would begin to hold that many films. Moselle chooses not to delve into harder questions about how the family subsists; this isn’t that kind of documentary.

What is obvious is that the boys (and their mom, who’s as much a victim as they are) love each other fiercely and look out for each other. When Mukunda, then 15, starts venturing out on his own without permission, it begins a chain of events in the household as the boys start to question the wisdom of their father’s decisions and stand up to his edicts. By the end of the film, Mukunda has moved out, the others have also started going out on their own and one has even found himself a girlfriend. In short, they’re acting like adolescent boys moving into manhood and even Oscar seems disposed to letting nature take its course.

This is a story that is likely to keep the audience engaged throughout; the boys are terrific subjects and while one is prone to continue asking oneself “How could this happen?” Unfortunately, the filmmakers sabotage their own story in the editing process. The interviews by the filmmakers are interwoven with home video from the family; for recreation, the boys recreate their favorite movies on video, allowing them to enter the worlds that the movies have created for them, so with home-made props they make startlingly clever and inventive recreations and at the film’s end, an original movie of their own.

The problem is that there is no context here; we just get the family’s viewpoint and really don’t get anything else to support or oppose it. We are told that some of the boys are seeing therapists; we don’t get an interview with any sort of expert to talk about what sorts of issues the boys could be facing. That kind of testimony would have only augmented the film.

Not only that and even more egregiously, the interviews bounce around in time; we are never really sure when in the process the interviews are taking place and only near the end when some of the boys defiantly get their hair cut do we realize we are looking at more recent footage. It’s frustrating for the viewer in that a story that should be fairly linear jumps around; there are references to somewhat important events but only one (an incident in which the police broke down the door on suspicion that there were weapons in the apartment when it was just the boys making a movie that involved prop guns) is ever explained or discussed.

The Angulo boys (their sister is developmentally disabled) are slowly integrating themselves into the world and reportedly five of the six are no longer on speaking terms with their father. We don’t hear much from Oscar, other than a kind of half-handed shrug that he made a few mistakes. There are intimations that he is alcoholic and physically abusive, although nothing is really discussed overtly; the boys refer to it, but there is no follow-up.

The movie is meant to be inspiring and it is. We see the boys on a trip to a rural apple orchard and pumpkin patch and their wonder at seeing the countryside firsthand is joyful. We also see the dynamics have changed within the family; Oscar is walking hand in hand with Visnu and Susanne who want to see what her boys are up to. Oscar isn’t interested; finally Susanne breaks her hands free of Oscar and walks alone to find her boys, which she does. Visnu and Oscar are alone.

This is an interesting documentary that could have been a powerful, important documentary with some judicious editing and a little more focus. Moselle didn’t really delve into the more difficult subjects having to do with the imprisonment; how did child protective services not intervene on this case? And quite frankly, it’s likely they did and found that the children were well adjusted and normal in every respect, but with their own peculiar and creative view of the world outside their walls and concluded there was no need to change anything but we are left only with speculation. I can recommend it, but not as much as I would have liked to.

REASONS TO GO: An amazing story. The brothers are engaging, creative and charismatic.
REASONS TO STAY: Poorly edited. Lacks context.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moselle met Mukunda on one of his unauthorized jaunts outside and persuaded the family to let her have access so she could tell their story.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cub

Cloud Atlas


Cloud Atlas

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry get a glimpse of the box office numbers.

(2012) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Brody Nicholas Lee, Raevan Lee Hanan, Alistair Petrie. Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski

 

Some movies are easily described, tackle relatively simplistic storylines and are therefore reviewed rather easily. Some have epic ambitions, attempt to tackle much more complex stories and modes of storytelling and give critics fits trying to describe them.

Cloud Atlas is such a film. Based on a much-admired novel by David Mitchell, the movie was taken on by the Wachowskis (auteurs of the Matrix trilogy) who first got their attentions captured by it when Natalie Portman gave a copy to them on the set of V for Vendetta. They decided to turn it into a movie shortly thereafter and brought in close friend Tykwer (best known for Run, Lola, Run) to help them with the writing and directing.

And it is a magnificent canvas. Six stories run concurrently across six different eras with actors playing multiple roles (and often multiple genders). In 1849, a young lawyer named Adam Ewing (Sturgess) returning home from the Pacific Islands to his home in New England after negotiating a slaving contract helps a stowaway slave (Gyasi). In 1936, a young man who dreams of composing (Whishaw) becomes an assistant to a fading composer with the delightful name of Vyvyan Ayrs (Broadbent) and writes a series of love letters to his lover (D’Arcy) at Cambridge while composing a piece of music that will go largely unheard but will have a major effect on other people as time goes by.

In 1973 Luisa Rey (Berry), an investigative reporter in the mold of her father (Gyasi again) is put onto the trail of a defective nuclear power plant by a physicist – the same man who the young composer was writing in 1936 – and goes after Lloyd Hooks (Grant), who runs the plant with what might not be altruistic motives. She will be helped by a physicist (Hanks) and a security chief (David) while stalked by a deadly killer named Bill Smoke (Weaving).

Meanwhile, in 2012 a dishonest publisher (Broadbent) finds himself with a hit book on his hands after it’s criminal author (Hanks again) throws a smarmy critic (Petrie) off a roof but is forced to seek help when the author demands more of a cut. He reluctantly turns to his brother (Grant) who fools him into committing himself in a retirement home that is something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest complete with its own version of Nurse Ratched (in this case, Weaving) and with a few fellow elderly inmates concocts a plan of escape.

In 2144 in the city of Neo Seoul, an artificial human being named Sonmi-241 (Bae) finds her life as a restaurant waitress turned upside down when a revolutionary (Sturgess) shows her an entirely new world as he teaches her philosophy and history and she soon realizes that the corrupt world she lives in needs someone to speak up for the downtrodden – and that someone might as well be her, despite grave risks by a nearly all-seeing establishment.

Far in the future after civilization has fallen, a goat herder named Zachry (Hanks) living on a Pacific island in a village of peaceful farmers and shepherds is visited by Meronym (Berry), a member of a technologically advanced society called the Prescients. She wants to be guided to a distant place but nobody will take her because in order to get there they must go through the territory of a vicious tribe of cannibals called the Kona who are led by a particularly ruthless, nasty chief (Grant). Zachry agrees to do this in exchange for Meronym saving his daughter Catkin (Hanan) from death by a nasty infection.

These six stories are told concurrently with the film jumping from era to era, sometimes after only a matter of seconds. Initially it is going to sound a lot more confusing than it is; once you get settled into it, it’s actually not that hard following the stories. And while there is a bit of the stunt casting element (all of the main actors appear in one form or another in nearly every one of the six stories, some in more than one role) you get used to seeing the same faces in different roles thanks to some pretty nifty make-up jobs.

The overall theme here is that someone is being repressed and must face a decision as to whether to accept the repression and imprisonment or to act to end it, whether for themselves or for others. People have the capacity to leap beyond their own needs and give selflessly for the sake of others; not all people act on that capacity but some clearly do. People also have the capacity to force others into lives of servitude and reap the benefits of these actions; not all people act on that capacity but some clearly do as well.

The descriptions of the stories are actually fairly general and don’t really capture the whole magnitude of each vignette. Each story has an epic quality to it and while some are more personal than others (the Tykwer-directed stories in particular) there is certainly a sense that each story has ripple effects that magnify through time. While the stories don’t necessarily intersect directly, they often parallel one another with identical themes told in different ways. The stories aren’t necessarily meant to follow one another so much as complement one another.

It’s an ambitious work and without a stellar cast to carry it off it probably wouldn’t have worked as much. Not all of the roles work every time for the actors and often they are asked to move well out of their comfort zones but I suspect that they loved being pushed into places they hadn’t been or at least rarely go. Berry is intriguing in her 1973 and far future incarnations; Hanks does well in the far future and in 1849. Broadbent is fun in 2012 and more of a rotter in 1936; Whishaw does some fine work as the doomed composer in 1936 and Sturgess as the dying lawyer in 1849 and the somewhat guarded revolutionary in 2144.

Weaving also fares well as the 1973 hit man and as kind of a devil in the far future. Bae, whose work I wasn’t that familiar with to begin with, is magnificent in the 2144 sequence. She reminds me very much of Rinko Kikuchi in Babel. Not just from a physical standpoint but simply in the manner in which she acts.

Definitely this isn’t going to be for everyone. General audiences tend to want their science fiction to be action-oriented rather than thought-provoking (even Blade Runner wasn’t the hit Alien was); sure there’s a pretty sizable cult audience for thinking sci-fi but they don’t seem to be enough to really push movies such as this one into profitability which is a shame because work this ambitious and innovative should be rewarded.

I’m sure a lot of people were put off by the scope of the film, and by the reviews that placed it as cerebral. Not everyone goes to the movies to be intellectually stimulated and that’s okay. I like a visceral knuckle-dragging action movie as much as the next guy. I just like to have the part of me above the neck stimulated as much as my testosterone and this movie does both amply. Simply put, one of the movies that I will continue to debate and discuss with other film buffs for a very long time to come and clearly one of the year’s best.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking and compelling. Awesome visual and make-up effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Some people are simply not going to know what to make of this. Cerebral sci-fi historically not a big box office winner.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of violence, some sexuality, some graphic nudity, a bit of bad language and some drug use (some of it involuntary).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wachowskis and Tykwer each directed three time period stories apiece, sharing no crew other than the actors themselves. The Wachowskis filmed the 1849, 2044 and far future sequences, Tykwer the 1936, 1973 and 2012 sequences.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are pretty mixed but leaning towards the good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Time Machine (2002)

DRAG LOVERS: Most of the main cast plays members of both genders at various times in the film.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: What’s Your Number

Snow White and the Huntsman


Snow White and the Huntsman

Charlize Theron was really hoping for “A Game of Thrones.”

(2012) Fantasy (Universal) Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Stewart, Sam Claflin, Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Eddie Izzard, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost, Stephen Graham, Lily Cole, Sam Spruell, Vincent Regan, Liberty Ross, Noah Huntley, Jonny Harris, Brian Gleeson, Rachael Stirling. Directed by Rupert Sanders

 

Fairy tales have a reputation for being sweetness and light, stories for children that are suffused with happy endings. In truth, fairy tales are dark things for which happy endings are often a matter of perspective.

The kingdom of good King Magnus (Huntley) is a kindly and prosperous place, where justice reigns and the people are content. All adore in particular the beautiful child Snow White, who has hair dark as a raven’s wing, lips red as rose petals, skin pale and flawless as alabaster. But one particularly cruel winter, the queen (Ross) dies, leaving Magnus bereft.

Shortly thereafter a mysterious army attacks his kingdom and Magnus leads his army out to defend his subjects. They are victorious and amidst the carnage they discover a wagon with a beautiful woman in it. She is Ravenna (Theron) and seems to have been a captive of the evil army that Magnus has vanquished. She is beautiful and slightly timid and Magnus is immediately taken by her. In a matter of days he proposes and the kingdom rejoices; it will have a queen once again.

Ravenna and Snow White are friendly; the latter is thrilled that her father will be happy once again, the former insisting that she has no plans to replace her mother. The wedding is joyous and solemn, and for a night things are perfect. However in their wedding bed, Ravenna’s true nature reveals itself; she has poisoned her new husband and stabs him through the heart to seal the deal. Then she opens the gates and allows in her real army to massacre everyone inside.

Count Hammond (Regan) escapes with his son William and leave for their own castle, thinking Snow White dead. She is very much alive, however, and grows to adulthood (Stewart), imprisoned in one of the towers of the castle. Ravenna, who is a powerful sorceress, is bleeding the land dry. She has a magic mirror (which moves, Terminator T-1000 like, into a puddle of liquid silver to take shape as a cowled man) who reassures her that she is the fairest one of all. To insure that, she steals the youth from many maidens in the kingdom including Greta (Cole), keeping her young and vibrant.

Then her mirror tells her that the only threat to her reign is Snow White, who is alone capable of killing and defeating her (not necessarily in that order). However, if Ravenna kills Snow White and takes her still-beating heart, Ravenna will live eternally and reign forever. Ravenna then sends her brother Finn (Spruell) to fetch Snow White but she manages to escape, finding her way into the Dark Forest, where even the bravest of the Queen’s soldiers don’t dare go.

The Queen enlists a Huntsman (Hemsworth) who is grieving the death of his wife. His qualifications: he has entered the Dark Forest and survived, returning to become a bit of a tosspot. He is unwilling to help the Queen for whom he holds no love but when promised to be reunited with his love, he goes even though he doesn’t trust the Queen or her brother.

His instincts prove to be true and he manages to not only avoid the trap set for him but to find Snow White and become her ally. He guides her to the forest to a town made up mostly of women whose men have gone to war for the Queen. They have scarred their faces in order to protect themselves from having their youth taken by Ravenna’s magic. However, this proves to be a brief respite as Flynn and his men arrive, searching for Snow White.

With Flynn is William (Claflin), the son of the Duke and Snow White’s childhood friend. He’s hunting her too but for a different reason than Flynn – he wants to rescue her and take her back to the castle where she would be the symbol that the people of the kingdom need to rally behind and rise up against the evil of Ravenna. However, the Huntsman and Snow White escape into an enchanted fairy forest where dwell eight dwarves, including Beith (McShane), Muir (Hoskins), Gort (Winstone), Nion (Frost), Duir (Marsan), Coll (Jones), Quert (Harris) and Gus (Gleeson) capture them.

Beith and the Huntsman apparently have a past which is none to friendly but the blind Muir persuades the band to take Snow White under their wings, which proves to be a smart decision when she is blessed by the Great Stag, indicating that she is destined to dethrone the Queen and allow nature to return to the Kingdom. But how will she do this, chased by the Queen’s deadly magic against a magic army in an impenetrable castle?

While the basic outline of the story is the same of the beloved fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm, this ain’t your momma’s Snow White – and it certainly isn’t Disney’s either. Sanders – a British commercial director, makes his feature debut with a splash, creating a vision that is both ugly and beautiful, magical and authentic. There are medieval battles as well as the gorgeous fairy forest, where mushrooms stare back at you, fairies ride mossy turtles and butterflies combine into a giant stag.

As good as the visuals are, Charlize Theron is better. As the evil Queen she is more than just a cold-hearted bitch that other movies relegate evil queens to. She is evil, but with a personality; she is dreadfully in fear of losing her youth, and possessed of an intense hatred of men who have used her for her beauty throughout her life. She is evil as a means of taking control, and punishes women for being younger than she, men for being…well, men.

Also of note is Hemsworth who has achieved stardom through his portrayal of Thor. His work here convinces me that he is going to be an able leading man and not just a one-dimensional superhero. This Huntsman is grief-stricken and looking for something to believe in, finding it with Snow White. While some of the mead-drinking shenanigans are reminiscent of his work in Thor, there is enough here that is new that leads me to believe that the man’s career will have staying power.

Less successful is Stewart. Legions of her fans helped give this an impressive opening weekend, but she never really convinced me of her authenticity here. Not so much as a princess – any little girl can play that – but as a leader and as someone people would want to follow. Stewart also overacts a little bit in places, particularly when she’s called upon to make a stirring speech. She’s beautiful, sure – but fairer than Charlize Theron? I don’t think so.

I would have liked the movie to meander a little bit less. The battle sequences were also far less convincing than the magic, and I think the movie would have benefitted from leaning more in that direction than it did. Still, the visuals are so striking and Theron’s performance so compelling that I can recommend this even to non-fans of Kristen Stewart – and the anti-Twilight legions will probably want to give this a miss (with good reason) but you’re missing some solid summer entertainment if you do.

REASONS TO GO: Theron is deliciously evil. Hemsworth shows signs of being a terrific leading man. Some of the special effects are lovely.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit jumbled. Stewart overacted a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of science fiction violence, explosions, gruesome aliens and a lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kristen Stewart had to overcome a childhood fear of horses in order to do the battle scene which called for her to ride one.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100. The reviews are nearly all rotten.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mirror Mirror

CELTIC ALPHABET LOVERS: The dwarf names are based on Ogham, the ancient “Tree Alphabet” of the Celtics in which letters are associated with certain trees and assigned a symbolic value; for example, Beith equals “B” which equals birch which stands for new beginnings.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Hoodwinked 2: Hood vs. Evil

Goya’s Ghost


Goya's Ghosts

Francisco Goya stands before one of his completed works.

(Goldwyn) Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgaard, Randy Quaid, Michael Lonsdale, Jose Luis Gomez, Blanca Portillo, Mabel Rivera. Directed by Milos Forman

These days the Spanish Inquisition is a punch line, but back in the day the name would induce fear for the suffering it caused. Being summoned by the Inquisition was in no way a joke, and those who received such a summons usually had reason to regret it later.

Francisco Goya (Skarsgaard) is perhaps the most renowned painter in all of Spain. He has the eye of the royal court, including King Carlos (Quaid) and the clergy, including the Inquisitor General (Lonsdale) and more to the point, an ambitious clergyman named Lorenzo (Bardem) who is having his own portrait painted by Goya. Lorenzo has recently lobbied the Inquisitor General to be given charge of the Inquisition so that he might return it to stricter standards.

Noticing a painting of a young girl in Goya’s studio, Lorenzo finds out that her name is Ines (Portman) and she is the daughter of a prosperous merchant (Gomez). When Ines is picked up by Inquisition spies for refusing to eat pork in a tavern (since those of the Jewish faith didn’t eat pork, this is construed as a sign of Judaism and not of someone just not liking the taste of pork; this particular policy was bad news for those who didn’t like pork and worse news for pigs), her parents beg Goya to intercede with the Inquisition. He goes to Lorenzo, who visits the torture-ravaged girl who has already confessed for her crime of not eating pork and therefore being a Jew (horrors!) and rather than helping her, he rapes her instead. Nice guy, that Lorenzo.

As the days and weeks begin to pile up, the merchant decides to take matters into his own hands. He invites Lorenzo and Goya for dinner and pleads directly to Lorenzo. When Lorenzo placidly says that the whole concept of the Inquisition is that those who speak the truth will receive strength from God to weather the torture, the merchant goes ballistic. He feels, quite rightly, that people will admit to anything under torture and to prove it, he strings up Lorenzo (over Goya’s strenuous objections) and gets him to sign an affidavit that Lorenzo is, in fact, a monkey who consorts with other monkeys. Such a document would be blasphemy and Lorenzo would be disgraced and defrocked and quite probably feel the ministrations of the Inquisition himself. The merchant threatens Lorenzo with the document if he doesn’t release Ines; Lorenzo being a stubborn sort rapes her again.

Thus the merchant makes the document public and Lorenzo is predictably defrocked, fleeing Spain in disgrace. 15 years later, King Carlos is dead and Napoleon has conquered Spain, abolishing the Inquisition and installing a new prosecutor – that’s right, Lorenzo. He has wholeheartedly embraced the doctrine of the French revolution and enthusiastically applies it to Spain with mixed results.

Goya in the meantime has gone deaf and is embittered, although he is still a great painter (and would be for several decades). Ines has lost most of her mind during her long incarceration; when the French empty the jails, she wanders to her family home only to find all of her family dead, killed by rampaging soldiers during the invasion. With nowhere left to go, she seeks out Goya, begging him to help her find the baby she’d had in prison who Lorenzo had fathered but had been taken away from Ines shortly after birth.

Forman, best known for Amadeus has again presented a place and time in all its glory and sordidness, warts and halos combined. This is a place of disease and putrefaction, but one where great works of art were created.

Forman took many of his visual cues from Goya himself, and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe does a magnificent job of making the movie look not unlike a Goya painting; often dark and mysterious but always full of life.

Skarsgaard makes a formidable Goya, charming and driven at once, his talent protecting him from the worst offenses of the time. The surprising thing is that he is not the central character of the movie that bears his name.

In fact, nobody has that distinction. Ostensibly, it’s Lorenzo’s story but it really isn’t about him, not altogether anyway. Nor is it about Ines, who spends much of the film rotting away in prison offscreen.  It’s not because of the performances of Bardem and Portman who do solid work here – no, it really is because there is no focus on any one specific character, leaving us to focus on the environment, which might be a good thing because Foreman does such a great job at creating it.

This isn’t a trip to the Prado by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the next best thing. Admirers of Goya may cringe at the liberties taken with the painter’s life and the history of Spain but even the most stringent of those will surely be pleased by the overall look of the film, which captures the spirit and intensity of the great artist’s work.

WHY RENT THIS: Skarsgaard, Bardem and Portman deliver solid performances. The film depicts a time in history rarely seen in films.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is a little confusing and the plot a bit brutal from time to time.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s rape, violence, murder, nudity, torture, sexuality, foul language and all manner of mayhem. Just another day at the office for me, but you might want to consider hard before letting your kids see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Natalie Portman was cast as Ines after Forman noticed her resemblance to the Goya painting “Milkmaid of Bordeaux.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Escapist