The period setting, the high-art gloss, the fascination with historical bombast and the ghoulish depths people to which proud people can sink -- all of these are things Goya's Ghosts has in common with the rest of the Milos Forman filmography. What it's lacking is a confident narrative or, for that matter, a sturdy script skeleton which the director can lean on. In surer hands, what was intended as ambitious -- to put the great Spanish artist Francisco Goya in the film's title and in a prominent position in the film's opening act, but then to draw away from, and ultimately unmoor him from the story completely -- might have actually succeeded, but here it just comes across as odd and indicative of a serious lack of directorial focus. I won't be the one to say that the powers of 75 year-old Forman have decayed -- he's so unprolific that it's hard to see any kind of career-parabola, anyway -- but on the evidence of this film, he should probably make it a priority to finish out his career with the strongest possible writing collaborators.

Javier Bardem embodies one of Forman's favorite fool-archetypes here: the true believer who is double-blind in thinking that the system he loves loves him back and that his earnestness in upholding it will produce rewards down the road. Bardem plays Brother Lorenzo, a Catholic priest who argues passionately for the grisly torture of the Inquisition in the opening scene, as the other priests sit quietly and imbibe his passionate commitment to the cause instead of daring to debate any of his points. It's only later, when an unlikely turn of events sees him having dinner in the home of a man suspected of being a "Judiazier" that he's asked to give any kind of thoughtful defense to his beliefs. 'How could there be any value in a confession given under extreme physical torture?,' Brother Lorenzo is asked, to which he replies that God grants the innocent the ability to withstand the torture and not utter false statements, but allows the guilty to perjure themselves. A few minutes later, he's singing a completely different tune.

p>Brother Lorenzo's connection to Goya begins as a simple one, with the former commissioning the latter for a portrait -- it then mutates and develops into a Hugo-esque epic that centers on a young Jewish girl called Inez (Natalie Portman) who was first the muse of the painter and then becomes the obsession of the priest. I've stopped typing for a moment because I'm actually straining to remember the sequence of events that carries these characters across a twenty-year time frame, until a fourth character is introduced: Inez's daughter, who is also played by Portman. By the third act, the plot requires mother and daughter, each played by Portman, to essentially act together in the same scenes, and credulity starts to snap. This is especially true when you consider that the poor actress must adopt a radically different look for each character: one could be a younger version of Carol Kane's character in The Princess Bride, with rotten teeth and teased out white hair, and the other is half Spanish, with orange tan and singed hair.

As I said before, marginalizing the title character of a film isn't a non-starter as an idea: everything depends on context. In this case, however, Goya is little more than a sketch, to the point that we have to wonder if having him in the film at all is relevant. Stellan Skarsgard often looks bewildered as to his purpose, and seems to lock onto the idea of Goya as a free-spirited fop who looks out for himself and doesn't want to get into trouble -- in other words, a non-entity. In Forman's defense, he's said when asked that the reason Goya doesn't have a major presence in the film is that Goya was a very boring personality in real life and did absolutely nothing questionable. That still begs the question, but okay, fine. What we're left with is a film about Bardem's priest, who survives the downfall of the Inquisition and the forced change brought about by Napoleon by adapting -- he immediately becomes a convincing Napoleon supporter. And there's the women, played by Portman, who he treats shabbily the whole time.

As sprawling and unfocused as it is sometimes compelling in its quieter moments, Goya's Ghosts is a hard film to characterize. If it were not the work of a major director, it's hard to imagine why anyone would suffer the mental agitation of trying to figure out how its various pieces fit together, or suppress laughter at the hoops poor Portman is put through in order to carry off two completely different characters in the same film. At times, even she seems on the verge of throwing in the towel. It falls upon us to look for Forman the director in this mess, and as best I can tell, he seems to shine through most during the film's most gruesome scenes of house-to-house rape and pillaging, during the closing episodes of British liberation of Napoleonized-Spain. That's what seems to get his juices flowing. I'll close where I began, by suggesting that the director focus on selecting the most worthwhile writing partners he can find for his next project, and confine himself to the director's chair.

*This film came out a week ago, but I was away in Canada. If Roger Ebert can review movies late, so can I!