When the picture begins with an extraordinarily vibrant scene of a gutted bull’s carcass morphing into the face of its dying subject, it’s immediately clear that “Goya in Bordeaux” is not going to be a conventional portrait of the artist as an old man. Visually extravagant and aurally luxuriant, intriguingly episodic and thematically enigmatic, both sumptuous and visionary, Carlos Saura’s amazing film is a remarkable achievement which instructs not only about the circumstances of the painter’s life, but also about the essence of his style.
Saura’s previous film, “Tango” (1998), was striking to look at too, but its construction was weak and its plot overly obvious. Here, working again with brilliant cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (whose earlier efforts included “Last Tango in Paris,” “One from the Heart,” “The Last Emperor” and “Little Buddha”), the Spanish director has gotten things almost precisely right. “Goya in Bordeaux” is astonishingly beautiful, but to a purpose: its visual palette is clearly designed to portray cinematically the look of its subject’s art (much as John Maybury’s 1998 “Love Is the Devil” tried to capture the style of Francis Bacon, though in this case the result is gorgeous rather than unpleasant). And the pictorial splendor is now matched with a structure that complements rather than weakening it. The scenario is basically told from the perspective of the infirm, often hallucinating Goya, and so its fragmentary, dreamlike presentation of selected episodes from his life is perfectly understandable. Yet by the time the film is over, we’ve been nicely introduced to the painter’s political liberalism in the face of monarchical authoritarianism in his native Spain, to his complicated love life and family circumstances, and to his unique artistic aspirations. It’s surprising how much a viewer learns from Saura’s film, even though it never adopts a didactic or lecturing tone. Moreover, the action is beautifully abetted by a superb score by Roque Banos, which includes provincial rhythms to accompany dance sequences, quasi-classical bits, and excellent general background music, adding to the imagery rather than simply accompanying it; and the sound mix by Carlos Faruolo brings it all lovingly to the ear.
The picture is also splendidly acted. Francisco Rabal is ferociously fine as the aged artist, with Jose Coronado doing a lower-key but still impressive turn as his younger self. The supporting cast, mostly playing Goya’s former lovers, wives, family members or cronies, is excellent across the board, but special mention must be made of Dafne Fernandez, a lovely young girl who is by turns playful and affecting as Rosario, the daughter to whom the elderly Goya confides secrets from his past and with whom he celebrates his art.
For almost its entire running time “Goya in Bordeaux” is an entrancing film in which virtually every element seems exactly on target. At the end, unfortunately, Saura makes a serious miscalculation by having a Spanish theatrical troupe, La Fura dels Baus, “bring to life” the components of Goya’s “Disasters of War” series, showing the brutal effects of the Napoleonic campaigns on the Iberian peninsula. The idea might have been a good one, but while the execution is glorious in terms of the backgrounds and colors, the human performers can’t match them. It’s a cinematic high-wire act which would require a conjurer of almost supernatural ability to bring off, and the director just misses; it probably would have been better simply to focus on the original paintings without trying to convert them into action.
But while this relative failure ends his picture on less exalted a note than one might have wished, Saura is clearly working at the peak of his powers through most of the film. “Goya in Bordeaux” is visually and aurally ravishing and dramatically powerful as well. It’s easily one of the most imaginative and fully-realized cinematic portraits of the inner life of the artist ever made.