Grade: C-

Let’s say that in this twenty-first century world, you want to make a film that will throw a harsh light on religious fanaticism and say something about the conflict between it—and the brutality it engenders—and secular rationalism. What historical episode might you choose to illustrate that theme? Well, if you’re Milos Forman, the answer is: the Spanish Inquisition, of course! Why? Perhaps it’s both safely distant and entirely removed from any P.C. considerations of the moment.

Unfortunately, “Goya’s Ghosts”—the movie Forman has come up with—may avoid being offensive to post-9/11 sensitivities, but it doesn’t escape being heavy-handed and faintly ridiculous. It’s like a mediocre Hollywood costume epic from the 1940s, replete with melodramatic flourishes and plot contrivances that border on the risible—a handsome picture, but a humdrum one.

Artist Francisco de Goya (+1828) gets pride of place in the title, but as played, rather feebly, by Stellan Skarsgard he’s a secondary figure—an observer of events, and to a large extent the audience surrogate, rather than the central actor in the drama. The true protagonist here is Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), a reserved but determined churchman who’s the force behind the revitalization of the inquisition in the Spanish kingdom, prodding the authorities to rouse the institution from its recent laxity and becoming its de facto head. One of the tribunal’s first targets is Ines (Natalie Portman), a rich merchant’s daughter who makes the mistake of declining pork during an evening out. An anonymous report of that—along with the information that a distant ancestor was a Jewish convert (so-called conversos, those who continued to practice their “old” religions—Judaism or Islam—while nominally espousing Catholicism, being the Spanish Inquisition’s main victims)—leads to her arrest and indefinite imprisonment for questioning (by torture, of course).

By happenstance Goya has painted Ines (as well as Queen Mary, wife of King Carlos IV, played by buffoonish Randy Quaid in what would seem a nod to Jeffrey Jones’s emperor in Forman’s “Amadeus”) and is also now doing a portrait of Lorenzo, so her father Tomas (Jose Luis Gomez) asks the artist to intervene with the inquisitor on his daughter’s behalf, offering a large “donation” to the church to grease the wheels. Lorenzo looks into the matter, but his superiors refuse to allow her release (though they do accept her father’s monetary gift). On visiting the poor girl in her dank cell, moreover, he’s overcome with lust and ravishes her. (The wages of celibacy, no doubt—or could anyone resist Portman?)

All this leads to a meal with the merchant’s family, where the furious father decides to teach Lorenzo a lesson about how people will literally confess to anything under torture by stringing him up until he signs a document admitting to be the descendant of an monkey—and this pre-Darwin! To avoid being humiliated publicly, Lorenzo flees Spain for revolutionary France, leaving Ines incarcerated.

Cut to the Napoleonic invasion of Spain fifteen years later, bringing to the peninsula—along with the secularist, rationalist principles of the French Revolution—the overthrow of Carlos, the creation of a Napoleonic puppet state, the closure of the Inquisition and the liberation of all religious prisoners, among them the disfigured, desperate Ines, who finds her family all dead and seeks the (now-deaf) Goya’s help with a grave secret she’s brought with her into the light. It’s something that involves Lorenzo, who just happens to have returned as the chief minister of the new regime, as fanatical now in the service of Enlightenment as he once was to the faith he has come to see as a benighted obstacle to human progress. Goya’s determination to assist Ines will bring him into a conflict with Lorenzo that may have disastrous effects.

There are some interesting elements in “Goya’s Ghost,” not the least being Bardem’s performance, which isn’t exactly good but is eye-catching, especially in the first half of the picture, where he gives Brother Lorenzo an oddly stilted intensity that’s compelling if not exactly convincing. But he can’t do much with the more rakish side of the character in the latter stages of the picture, especially since Lorenzo’s whole-scale transformation is never satisfactorily dramatized. The dinner scene between him and Tomas is more ridiculous than powerful, and there’s no effort at all to explain the nature of the road to Damascus (or Paris) experience that altered him so completely. And Portman is undercut in the latter stages of the story by makeup that’s so poor it undermines her ability to act even more than the ludicrous headgear she had to wear in “The Phantom Menace.” Skarsgard, meanwhile, tries to add some complexity to Goya, but is hampered by the artist’s largely reactive stance, and Quaid never manages the juggling act between comic and serious as well as Jones did (a scene with a violin is excruciating in more ways than one). In fact, the most solid performer is Michael Lonsdale as the Inquisitor General, who wisely holds back while those around him are overemoting.

Visually the picture is good, with strong production design (Patrizia von Brandenstein), costumes (Yvonne Blake) and cinematography (Javier Aguirresarobe), even though the budgetary limitations occasionally show through. Varhan Bauer’s score is a plus, too.

But ultimately the film is derailed by a narrative that’s at once heavy-handed and so hobbled by unlikelihood that it comes across as faintly absurd. And in the end one may be scratching your head over its message. Is it saying that fanaticism in support of reason is as bad as in support of faith systems? That absolutists of any sort must have deep, hypocritical personal flaws? That obscurantism is destined to be victorious? Or just that humanity is doomed to endless rounds of battle between mindlessly opposed ideologies?

So “Goya’s Ghosts” is a prosaic period piece, high-minded and attractively mounted but muddled and turgid. Like many a spectral phenomenon, it may look striking on first appearance, but it’s ultimately ephemeral and fleeting.