During the past two decades, Spanish writer-director Carlos Saura’s films have increasingly come to resemble guilty pleasures, all sumptuous surfaces and, when the subject has been dancing, spiked by an erotic heat. His last film, Tango (1998), was the culmination of a series of studies of the expressive possibilities of dance, framed by the story of a Saura-like director who was cannibalizing his life in order to work his way through a creative block (shades of 8 1/2). It was a clever scenario, filmed with deep-dish precision by Vittorrio Storaro, a celebration of color and movement with a gloss of sophomoric philosophizing.
With Goya in Bordeaux, Saura has applied his talents to the conventional biopic, his subject being the famous Spanish painter Francisco Goya (1746-1828). The biopic is a genre noted for the pruning of details and the emphasis on significant personal moments in lieu of biographical continuity, and Saura adheres to the rules so strictly that his Goya has almost no context. We never learn exactly why the great painter is living out his last days in exile in Bordeaux or, for that matter, why the great painter is considered “the great painter.” Not that much context is needed, since it’s a given of the genre that the genius-artist is someone who’s persecuted in his own time — and so his exile confirms his greatness and his greatness justifies his exile.
Saura’s Goya (Francisco Rabal) is alternately avuncular and cranky, deaf but still vital and prone to slipping into a dream world of bittersweet memories. Goya was a child of the Enlightenment, to the extent that it penetrated Spain. Still. Saura is less interested in his evolution from the royal portraitist for the court of Charles III to the fiercely dark painter of the horrors of war than he is in Goya’s dead-end love affair with the Duchess of Alba (Maribel Verdú).
The result is a typical Saura confection, a lushly filmed (Storaro is on hand again) wallow in the loves and tribulations of a long-suffering artist.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday-Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].