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Goya's Ghosts

By Yentl Schattevoet, MA

Quick Facts
Year Released 2006
Country of Production United States / Spain
Director Miloš Forman
Lead Actors/Actresses Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgård
Awards/Nominations 2 wins and 5 nominations
Runtime 1h 49 min


In the public mind, the Inquisition is seen as a dark chapter of history, and it has been an inspiration for many artists. In the movie Goya’s Ghosts, director Miloš Forman (1932-2018) portrays it as a terrifying totalitarian system. Set in Madrid in the year 1792, the viewer is introduced to the turbulent times when the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) clashed with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.1 We see the Holy Office of the Inquisition having a heated discussion about a series of satirical etches titled Los Caprichos (The Caprices, 1799). It was the famous Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya (1746-1828) who created the etches to express his critique on what he saw as the madness of Spanish society, including the Inquisition.


Contrary to the fictional clergy of the Holy Office, brother Lorenzo is not outraged by how Goya depicts Churchmen in his etches. His stance is more in line with the views of the Spanish theologian Alfonso de Castro (1495-1558), who argued that severe punishment of heretics was necessary as their deviating beliefs and practices endangered Catholic unity.2 Both the Church and the worldly Spanish royalty agreed to this. Therefore, the Holy Office held tribunals following canon law, and the government alone was in charge of executing heretics that were condemned by the Church.3 In the movie, we can see indeed that the clergy pray for the heretic Lorenzo to confess his sins, while the king gives the sign for the final strike.

Javier Bardem as Lorenzo in "Goya's Ghosts" (2006)Detail of "The Inquisition Tribunal" (1812-1819) by Francisco Goya

Lorenzo as a heretic before the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Notice the similarities between this film still and Goya’s heretic in the painting The Inquisition Tribunal.

Even though it seems Inés Bilbatúa is summoned before the Inquisition for the superstition of kissing the feet of a dwarf, it is actually for refusing to eat pork at the tavern. This suggests the crime of 'Judaizing' or secretly practicing Jewish rituals.4 Since its publication in 1478, the papal bull Exigit sinceras devotionis affectus of Pope Sixtus IV gave green light to prosecute Judaizers.5 The Church considered it a heresy, as it is a refusal to submit to the orthodox beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.6 Jews had always been a thorn in the side of both the Church and the worldly rulers for usually being wealthy and for standing in the way of a Christian Spain. After forcing all Jews to either leave Spain or convert to Christianity, the problem of the Conversos who could be 'secret Jews' arose.7

Even though Inés is clueless about her crime, she has to undergo the painful torture of 'the Question' or strappado. It is not clear in Goya's Ghosts that, historically, canon law dictated that a confession was only valid when given freely, meaning not during but after torture.8 The strappado turned out to be less effective than Lorenzo thought as he confesses to be a monkey. This undermines the orthodoxy of the Church, so the Inquisitor General refuses to release Inés regardless of her father's bribe. As the historical Inquisition was financed by the confiscated property of accused heretics—making rich Conversos ideal targets—Inés' story suggests corrupt clergy. Then, in the filthy and dark dungeons, Lorenzo rapes the almost naked Inés, even though he should have known that this is considered unnatural and a crime punishable by death.9

All in all, the portrayal of the Spanish Inquisition in Goya's Ghosts with the fanatic and evil Lorenzo indicates the Black Legend. This concept is used by historians to understand the Protestant propaganda against the Spanish, who were portrayed as cruel. The Spanish Inquisition therewith came to be seen as the worst of its kind.10 Even though this is an exaggerated image to demonise the Catholic Spanish, the Inquisition was more impactful in Spain than elsewhere due to the extension of the definition of heresy to any crime.11

The second part of Goya's Ghosts takes place around 1807. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France invaded Spain, and next the British occupied the lands, enthroning King Ferdinand VII. The Spanish Inquisition came to an end after the Peninsular War, and all prisoners were set free, including the mad Inés. Lorenzo—now an afrancesado or supporter of the French regime—finds their harlot daughter, who runs off with an English officer. The tables turn once more for the partisan Lorenzo when the Inquisition is reinstated—historically in 1814. Ironically, he is condemned as a heretic for holding the dangerous Enlightenment ideas he "For Being Born Somewhere Else" (1810/1811), Sketch by Francisco Goya Depicting the Sanbenitopreviously objected to so strongly.12 These scientific and philosophical ideas are actually listed in the Catholic Church's record of forbidden books Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1557).13

Lorenzo has to undergo an auto-da-fé—a heretic's ritual of penance—which Voltaire describes in his Candide as well.14 He wears the garment of heretics—the sanbenito—including the capirote or pointed, conical hat. The imagery of the devil and flames on the hat indicates that he is an obdurate heretic. When taking his last breath, he sees his harlot daughter in love with an Englishman, Inés showing him their 'baby,' and Goya drawing the scene.

Cultural Context

The life experiences of the movie's director reveal underlying motives for the way in which the Spanish Inquisition is portrayed. Like the era central to Goya's Ghosts, the life of Forman is quite turbulent. His first encounter with totalitarianism was the Third Reich. Forman’s mother was caught by the Nazi's during World War II for trading on the black market, and did not make it out of a concentration camp. His father died while being interrogated by the Gestapo. Like the scene with Voltaire's work, his crime was distributing forbidden books. Losing both his parents as the result of a totalitarian regime, Forman might have observed striking similarities with the interrogation, torture, incarceration, and killing of convicted—and perhaps innocent—heretics by the Church and state in Spain.

Later in life, Forman found out that the man he thought was his deceased parent, was not his biological father. His mother had a love affair with a Jewish architect who was working for her, and he turned out to be his father.15 Although there are many differences, we can see some similarities with Alicia's character, who never knew her biological parents. Also—probably coincidental—Natalie Portman, the actress who plays both Inés and Alicia in the movie, has Jewish roots.

Lastly, when Forman was studying filmmaking in his native Czechoslovakia, he had first-hand experiences with yet another regime that left its mark. It was during Communism that he read a book about the Spanish Inquisition. The stories about innocent people getting caught up in the system touched him. It seems Forman connected the dots, and the idea for Goya's Ghosts was born.16


Forman himself is quite clear about the message he likes to convey in Goya's Ghosts. For him, the movie is "a comment on despotism and power, and the blind fanaticism that devours not only its victims, but also its own executors."17 Indeed, all major characters are in some way or another the victim of the totalitarian regime of the Church in Spain. This parallels his own experiences with Nazism and Communism. Forman therewith suggests that the Roman Catholic Church of that time was yet another totalitarian regime.

Javier Bardem as Lorenzo in "Goya's Ghosts" (2006)"There Was No Help" (1797-1799) by Francisco Goya
We can see similarities between the portrayal of Lorenzo’s auto-da-fé in the movie and the one depicted on Goya’s Los Caprichos etch no. 24: There Was No Help.

Most striking is Lorenzo, who is stewed in his own juices by switching allegiance throughout the movie, but always taking the extreme stance. As a priest, he is a zealous fanatic who rationally pushes for the most cruel methods of torture for heretics, therewith personifying the Black Legend. As a revolutionary afrancesado he becomes what he has always loathed. There is another twist of fate when Lorenzo is condemned as a heretic himself by the reinstalled Spanish Inquisition. The main message of Lorenzo, then, is that "we come to see that evil comes dressed up in different guises."18 The consequences of Lorenzo's actions are irreversible for Inés, who loses her sanity at the hands of this corrupt and merciless heretic-hunter.

Even though the movie shows Goya as a perfectly sensible person slowly becoming deaf, the real Goya had developed a disturbing fascination for all things dark, morbid and bizarre after an illness that almost killed him in 1792, and left him not only deaf, but also paralyzed and partially blind. His odd interests are evident "Saturn Devouring His Son" (1819-1823) by Francisco Goyain the famous Black Paintings, such as Saturn Devouring His Son and Witches’ Sabbath.19 Also, the real Goya was summoned before the Inquisition, but for something that is not shown in Goya's Ghosts. The Church considered his paintings Clothed Maja and Naked Maja obscene.20 This again confirms that the plot around Goya in the movie is fiction for the most part, and the message seems to justify adjusting historical reality for Forman. It is a message of tragedy, because the only action Goya can take in a world of totalitarian madness is to observe and draw what he sees.21 Even in the very last scene, when Goya can only look at how the crazy Inés lovingly holds her 'baby' and Lorenzo's corpse.


There are two layers of portrayal of the Spanish Inquisition in Goya's Ghosts that contribute to the already negative image of the Spanish inquisitors that we know as the Black Legend. The first one is the actual artistic impression of Goya in his Los Caprichos, which is an exaggeration of reality due to the satirical nature of the etches. The other layer is Forman's construction of the historical Inquisition in the movie based on his personal experiences with totalitarian regimes.

The active evildoer and protagonist—other than the title might suggest—is Lorenzo. He switches sides from being a zealous inquisitor to a radical partisan. The irony is that in his quest for ultimate truth and the elimination of all evil, Lorenzo digs his own grave due to his relentless fanatism fuelled by a totalitarian system. Inés is the passive victim who is driven mad by the sadistic wrongdoings of Lorenzo. The motive of the mad(wo)man actually is a returning theme in Goya's art. The painter is the passive observer of the horrors of the Inquisition as he is only able to translate his experiences to works of art—just like Forman.

In conclusion, the message that the director seems to convey in Goya's Ghosts is that the Spanish Inquisition is not only the bleakest of all Inquisitions, but also just as terrifying as any totalitarian regime—most notably those he suffered himself. And so, Forman portrays the Spanish Inquisition as a reflection of his own world, therewith confirming the Black Legend in Goya's Ghosts.


1 Werner Tschacher, "Inquisition," in The Brill Dictionary of Religion, ed. Kocku von Stuckrad (Leiden: Brill, 2006), http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1872-5287_bdr_COM_00217.
2 Daniela Müller, Ketzer und Kirche: Beobachtungen aus zwei Jahrtausenden, volume 1 (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2014), 284, 285, 287, 288.
3 Müller, Ketzer und Kirche, 289-292.
4 Michael C. Thomsett, The Inquisition: A History (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2010), 152.
5 Thomsett, The Inquisition, 5, 6, 117; Tschacher, "Inquisition."
6 E. A. Livingstone, "Heresy," in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, third edition, ed. E. A. Livingstone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), https://www.oxfordreference.com/
; Müller, Ketzer und Kirche, 287-288.
7 Thomsett, The Inquisition, 172.
8 Thomsett, The Inquisition, 156.
9 Thomsett, The Inquisition, 153-155.
10 Benjamin Keen, "The Black Legend Revisited: Assumptions and Realities," The Hispanic American Historical Review 49, no. 4 (November 1969): 703; Müller, Ketzer und Kirche, 48; Thomsett, The Inquisition, 117, 204.
11 Thomsett, The Inquisition, 153.
12 Thomsett, The Inquisition, 173.
13 E. A. Livingstone, "Index librorum prohibitorum," in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, third edition, ed. E. A. Livingstone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199659623.001.0001/acref-9780199659623-e-2924.
14 E. A. Livingstone, "auto de fe," in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, third edition, ed. E. A. Livingstone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199659623.001.0001/acref-9780199659623-e-480.
15 "Goya's Ghosts 2006," Miloš Forman, accessed August 30, 2019, https://milosforman.com/
16 "Goya's Ghosts 2006."
17 "Goya's Ghosts 2006."
18 "Goya's Ghosts 2006."
19 "Goya's Ghosts (2006): Goofs," IMDb, accessed August 30, 2019, https://www.imdb.com/
; Ian Chilvers, "Goya, Francisco de," in The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists, second edition, eds. Tom Devonshire Jones, Linda Murray & Peter Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/
; Robert MacLean, "Los Caprichos: Francisco de Goya y Lucientes," Glasgow University Library Special Collections Department, last modified August 2006, http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/aug2006.html.
20 Chilvers, "Goya, Francisco de." 
21 "Goya's Ghosts 2006."


All material from Goya's Ghosts: © Xuxa Producciones, 2006.