Everybody at Cannes says Javier Bardem makes a marvelous villain in the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men. Here, Milos Forman makes Bardem into a ridiculously nefarious priest during the late throes of the Spanish Inquisition, just before Napoleon plunged that country into the Peninsular War of 1808–1814. Sounds like homework? Well, to put it kindly, history isn't Forman's forte. This Europudding prestige pic has Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård wearing a curious false nose as Francisco Goya, whose paintings and wartime sketches here inspire several scenes. He's mainly a passive witness to history, as Bardem's curiously accented cleric persecutes Goya's aristocratic muse, Natalie Portman. In its occasional lucid moments, Goya's Ghosts plays like a crumpled-up draft novel by Alexandre Dumas (interleaved with the torture manual from Gitmo). Most of the time, however, it's The People vs. Francisco Goya, with Skarsgård the embattled humanist hero and Bardem as the prosecutor and hypocrite-in-chief. BRIAN MILLER
Portman prays for a better role.
Goya's Ghosts Opens at Seven Gables and Uptown, Fri., July 20. Rated R. 114 minutes.