Talking Pictures

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Goya – or the Hard Way to Enlightenment

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2011

German Democratic Republic, 1971. In colour, 70mm, 136 minutes.

Directed by Konrad Wolf.

Screened in the WideScreen Weekend of the Bradford International Festival, 2011. 

For me this was the screening of the Festival. A beautifully shot film in 65mm, which has a fascinating structure to its story and an adventurous approach to form. Its virtues surpassed the difficulties many of us experienced from a print in German with French subtitles. The film’s plot crosses over in a number of ways with Milos Forman’s more recent Goya’s Ghost, but it is much more of an essay in political art cinema.

The film opens in the 1790s with Goya already an established painter, with a firm reputation with the royal court and the aristocracy. The impact of the French Revolution is leading to a growth of liberal and republican ideals. Goya is shown to have sympathy with these but he is also careful to avoid being identified with radicals. The powerful religious Inquisition suppresses any and all political, social and personal radicalism. Both Goya’s famous prints and paintings get close attention from this censorious body. However, 1808 sees the French liberation / occupation of Spain and the development of guerrilla warfare by the Spanish people. After 1815 the monarchy is restored in the person of Ferdinand VII. Reaction, including the Inquisition returns. In the 1920s, already partially retired, Goya moves to France.

The film mixes the social situations of the time, Goya’s public persona as a famous artist, and his rather chaotic personal life. This includes a severe illness in the early 1890s, which left him partially blind for a period and deaf for the rest of his life [the latter is underplayed]. His sexual life includes a wife and two children and a long-running affair with the Duchess of Alba.

Apparently the production team of the film reproduced 300 of Goya’s famous paintings and prints. The focus in the film is on a select few works, which are key achievements in his output.

The 1790s is the period of his famous portraits, and in particular his large canvas, The family of Charles 1V. At the same time he is involved in producing a series of prints sold as sets of etchings Los Caprichos. These are bizarre, menacing and even morbid, and are one of the works that incurred the displeasure of the Inquisition.

His relationship with the Duchess of Alba leads to the famous Naked Maja. It also includes a lovely scene where the Duchess visits his studio and thoughtfully drapes her mantilla over the face of a statue of the Virgin Mary.

The period of war naturally focuses on the two great works, The Second of May, 1808 and The Third of May, 1808. Revolutionary fervour and brutal suppression are captured in these great paintings. And there are the further series of etchings The Disasters of War, dark, violent and intensely grotesque.

The paintings and the settings are both beautifully lit and framed, and the sets and costumes are done in great style. But it is the filmic style, which gives the greatest potency. Wolf uses frequnet montage, both visual and aural. In both cases the techniques are in line with the ideas of 1920 Soviet directors and also the post-silent Sound Manifesto. The clash of images and sounds dramatises both the emotional life of Goya [and his deafness], but also the impact of great and powerful social events on him and his society.

Intriguingly the films theme would seem to offer allegorical comments on three different situations. Released in 1971 the tale of Goya’s life under the royal autocracy provides a parallel to the dictatorship in Spain of Franco and his fascist regime. However, the work of the Inquisition, which includes a public ‘show trial’ of repentant sinners, would seem to equally comment on the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Whilst the paranoia induced in the film by the surveillance of the Inquisition would seem to be an oblique comment on the DDR itself. How much of this was fully intentional can be debated.

Unfortunately the film, which was originally 166 minutes, was cut by the director himself. This seems to have been because the length and unconventional style found in the film detracted from its commercial potential. Given the discontinuities in the film’s style it was not always clear where cuts had been made. However, in some instances there are abrupt ellipsis, and I felt the reduction in running time was not altogether well done.

However, the film remains a great spectacle, a fascinating portrait, and a stimulating social essay.

Since 70mm screening are now so rare readers may like to know that there is a widescreen DVD version, and with English subtitles. But it won’t be quite the same in that format.




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