In Goya’s Ghosts, the maverick filmmaker Milos Forman has accomplished the unimaginable: He has somehow wrested a good performance from Natalie Portman. As Inés Bilbatúa, a wrongly jailed woman who becomes politically inconvenient upon her release, Portman eschews the pipsqueak shrillness that made her so maddening in Closer and Garden State. She immerses herself in the character’s unglamorous fate, devolving from a happy-go-lucky blonde in white lace (we first see Inés as she poses in Goya’s studio) to a mentally disturbed, prematurely old vagabond whose teeth, hair, and skin have turned frighteningly ashen.
The movie begins in 1790s Madrid, where black-robed clerics at the Holy Office of the Inquisition denounce Francisco de Goya’s etchings (grim fantasies that reflect the injustices of the day) as “demonic filth.” One inquisitor, on learning that Goya’s prints are sold in Rome and elsewhere abroad, wails: “This is how the world sees us!” Forman seats these holier-than-thou hysterics at a long rectangular table in high-backed chairs—the joke being that the Inquisition could be a corporate boardroom at any place and time in history . . .