By Owen Gleiberman
Updated July 18, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

In a season of digital bombast, it can be a relief to walk into a stodgy life-of-the-great-man costume drama. Goya’s Ghosts, before it turns into a messy, horse-drawn load, achieves a civilized stuffiness that gives off its own mild pleasure. Directed by Milos Forman, it’s the sort of movie in which the hero adds a dab of paint to the canvas, and you never remotely believe he has painted that painting. You never even believe that Stellan Skarsgard, as the incendiary artist Francisco de Goya, is Spanish. You go with it, though, because Skarsgard brings a cynical twinkle to the role of a subversive who is also a worldly, connected man.

Goya’s Ghosts isn’t really a tale of genius. It starts off as a message movie about the Spanish Inquisition, as Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), a cleric with the leer of a child molester, decides to make an example of Ines (Natalie Portman), the dewy daughter of a merchant, who’s tortured for having refused a dish of pork. By Lorenzo’s logic, she must be a ”Judaizer.” There is much dining-room debate about the effectiveness of torture — scenes clearly meant to comment on current U.S. tactics.

And then? Then the movie goes kerplooey. It leaps ahead to the French Revolution, ditches the torture theme, tries (in vain) to add a vague note of sympathy to Bardem’s cad, and gives Portman a ridiculous second role, as a flashing-eyed harlot saint. No wonder the twinkle drains out of Skarsgard. Goya’s Ghosts is such a botch, it left me yearning for a little digital bombast.