LOS ANGELES — The parents who raised Oscar-winning director Milos Forman were Protestants, but both perished in Nazi concentration camps.
The director’s adoptive father distributed “forbidden” books to his students during the Nazi occupation and was sent to a concentration camp. Amazingly, he was returned to Prague to stand trial, was even acquitted, but nevertheless was shipped to Buchenwald, where he perished in 1944.
A year earlier, Formanâ€™s mother, Anna, had suffered the same fate: After being arrested, she was sent to Auschwitz and died there.
“Nobody knows why,” Forman told JTA, speaking from his Connecticut home. “It was like the Inquisition. They grabbed people and nobody knew why.”
The analogy is deliberate, an intentional link to his latest film, “Goya’s Ghosts.” It’s a multi-layered story, a beautifully photographed art tour and a history lesson with multiple helpings of an impressive Natalie Portman.
The year is 1792, and while most of Europe has thrown off the shackles of the Roman Catholic Churchâ€™s Holy Inquisition, it still wields its power in Spain.
Caught in its toils is Ines, played by Portman, the daughter of a wealthy Christian businessman whose lovely face has made her a favorite model of the great court painter Francisco Goya.
Ines runs afoul of zealous Church spies, who finger her as a “Judaizer” when she declines a plate of pork at a public inn. Her nemesis, torturer and eventual seducer is chief inquisitor Brother Lorenzo, impressively portrayed by Spanish actor Javier Bardem. Ultimately the inquisitor is disgraced, but not before fathering Inesâ€™ daughter.
When Napoleon conquers Spain in 1808, the Inquisition is abolished, the prison doors are thrown open and Ines emerges after 25 years as a half-deranged hag. She undertakes a desperate search for her illegitimate daughter, who has become the beautiful prostitute Alicia, also portrayed by Portman in a remarkable double, or rather triple, performance.
The film, which opens July 20, is the latest for Forman, a Czech native whose biological father was Jewish, in a directing career that also includes “One Flew Over the Cuckooâ€™s Nest,” “Amadeus,” “Ragtimeâ€ and, most recently, “The People vs. Larry Flynt” in 1996.
â€œI believe that the most important conflict in the history of mankind is between the individual and institutions,â€ Forman said. â€œMan creates institutions, which then assume total power and believe that they own man. Thatâ€™s the theme of ‘Goyaâ€™s Ghosts.’ “
Forman doubts this struggle will ever end.
“After each war, after each mass killing, we all scream ‘Never again,’ ” he said. “Then we do it again because we never learn from history.”