Goya in Bordeaux

Friday, October 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Tom Sime / The Dallas Morning News

Though it dramatizes the life of a painter long dead, Goya in Bordeaux is completely convincing as a portrait of the artist. That authentic air flourishes even as writer-director Carlos Saura piles on enough theatrical tableaux to make Goya less than convincing as pure cinema.

Perhaps that's to be expected from Mr. Saura, who showed his love of stagey movies in a trilogy of superb flamenco films: Blood Wedding, Carmen and El Amor Brujo. All found a compelling bridge between the art forms of dance and film. Goya doesn't dramatize painting as effectively, but its performances and absorbing atmosphere make for a powerful statement all the same.

Jose Coronado and Francisco Rabal play Spanish painter Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), one of history's greatest and most influential painters, as a seductive young man and a decrepit, but no less passionate, 82-year-old.

Mr. Saura's film focuses on Goya's days in Bordeaux, where he settled after fleeing from Spain in the wake of the war for independence from Napoleon and the tyrannical reign of Ferdinand VII. War seared the painter's mind with images of suffering and mayhem, and later gave rise to some of his best-known works.

Almost everything in the film, from street scenes to battlefronts, was created on a soundstage, making for an artificiality that's sometimes eerie, sometimes oppressive. Luckily, both Mr. Coronado and Mr. Rabal are vividly real, and there's enough resemblance between them that we accept even the radically changed older Goya as an extension of his sharply handsome earlier self.

The younger Goya is highly ambitious, and he successfully pursues the position of court painter to King Charles III of Spain. He learns how to "flatter powerful people" with his work, while developing a reputation as an innovator.

He falls in love with the Duchess of Alba (Maribel Verdú), a fellow court conspirator who runs afoul of her enemies. Though Goya has other lovers, the Duchess remains his tragic muse.

At 46, Goya contracts a terrible fever that nearly kills him and leaves him deaf. But he gains new mystical insight from his near-death experience, and finds a beacon to follow more inspiring than court power. "The imagination, joined with reason, is the mother of the arts, the source of all marvels," he reverently declares.

In Mr. Saura's design, Goya's paintings permeate his life, though we never actually see him paint; instead it's the old trick of having the actor move a dry brush or pen against an already-completed work. The scenes with actors made up to look like paintings don't come off. And a climactic staging of the gory "Disasters of War" series of etchings is too gaudy and fake to be unsettling.

But Goya in Bordeaux is still a sensual, heartfelt tribute. It's ironic, but perhaps just as effective, that it dramatizes Goya's soul more powerfully than it does his work.