Early in Spanish director Carlos Saura’s stunning new film, the 82-year-old protagonist, the great 19th-century painter Francisco de Goya, awakens from a disturbing dream and rises to see an apparition of his lost love, the Duchess of Alba. Following her down a surrealistically white hallway, he suddenly finds himself outdoors in the snow, fending off horse-drawn carriages and irate passersby. The scene brings to mind Ingmar Bergman’s magnificent memory piece, Wild Strawberries, another film in which an old man observes scenes from his past and reflects on his life.
The hallucinatory Goya in Bordeaux is Saura’s fourth collaboration with the visionary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The film is far more than a mere visual feast, however. In the hands of Saura and Storaro, color, composition, light, shadow, space, and texture become reflections of thematic concerns as well as agents of deeply held beliefs and emotions. As in many of Saura’s more recent works, music and dance are woven into the tapestry of the film.
The influence of Buñuel can be felt throughout the film, beginning with the startling credit sequence, in which the camera slowly glides above an orangey-red landscape that looks oddly like tomato sauce, or possibly paint. The head of a boar sits in the glistening paste. Suddenly a large, indecipherable object is lifted into the air, hoisted by chains. A moment later, it becomes clear that the object is a gutted pig. The camera slowly tracks in, and the beast’s bones and muscles start to distort and morph into an image of Goya’s face. The painter opens his eyes, and the story begins.
Goya (Francisco Rabal) embarks on a journey through his past. Although he ostensibly is relating his life story to his 12-year-old daughter, Rosario (Dafne Fernandez), it is really an odyssey of the mind. He recalls himself as an ambitious young artist (Jose Coronado), determined to be named official painter to the court of King Charles IV. It is here, as a young man, that Goya first spies the captivating Duchess of Alba (Maribel Verdu), the only woman he will ever truly love.
Everything about the production is exquisite, from Storaro’s lensing and Pierre-Louis Thevent’s art direction to Pedro Moreno’s costumes and Roque Banos’ captivating musical score. Rabal conveys the confusion, regret, and still-fierce passions of the aging artist, who retired to Bordeaux, France, in the latter years of his life. Presiding over all of it is Saura, in whose imaginative hands paintings come to life and solid walls become translucent. Moody and atmospheric, the film nonetheless has a crispness that accentuates the surreal nature of the story.
Saura is a good match for Goya, whose later paintings and etchings depicted the horrors of war and critiqued the moral disintegration of Spain under a succession of despotic leaders. A filmmaker of passion and intelligence, Saura is probably best known in this country for a series of films he made that were played out in dance and music: Blood Wedding (1981), Carmen (1983), El Amor Brujo (1986), Flamenco (1995), and Tango (1998), which was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film. Goya in Bordeaux is a worthy addition to the great director’s body of work.