With "Goya's Ghosts," Forman has made a film that occasionally shades over into the melodramatic but gives us a multilayered story, a beautifully photographed art tour, a history lesson and impressive performances by Natalie Portman and Spanish actor Javier Bardem.
The year is 1772, and while most of Europe has thrown off the shackles of the Roman Catholic Church's Holy Inquisition, it still wields its power in Spain.
Caught in its toils is Ines (Portman), a wealthy Christian businessman's daughter, 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 (Bardem), who is ultimately disgraced, but not before fathering Ines' 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.
Despite the film's title, Goya is not the central character. As played by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard, he is a brilliant painter of both royalty and the suffering masses, whose "Disasters of War" series still stands among the most graphic indictments of man's inhumanity to man.
However, away from his easel, he is an uninspiring, cautious man, and Forman sums up the paradox by describing him as "a courageous coward."
The 75-year-old director, speaking from his home in Connecticut, has lived a life to rival his movie plots.
He was born in a small Czech town in 1932, and contrary to biographical entries, the man he considered his father was a Protestant, as was his mother. He learned only later that "my biological father was Jewish."
Forman's adoptive, or, as he calls him, "physical" father distributed "forbidden" books to his students during the Nazi occupation and was sent to a concentration camp. Amazingly, he was then returned to Prague to stand trial, was even acquitted, but nevertheless was shipped to Buchenwald, where he perished in 1944.
Forman's mother, Anna, suffered the same fate. After her arrest, she was sent to Auschwitz, where she met her death in 1943.
Why was his Protestant mother arrested and killed?
"Nobody knows," said Forman, and, linking his family's fate to his movie's theme, "it was like the Inquisition. They grabbed people and nobody knew why."
Given this unusual background, Forman was asked how he would identify himself, and he responded, "I refuse to analyze myself."
Young Milos survived the war by being handed from one relative's or friend's home to another. He said he lived rather happily in the absence of parental discipline.
His own personal encounter with tyranny came as a rising young filmmaker during the communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia, and he links the experience to his present film.
"The trumped-up trials of the Inquisition were like the show trials under the communists," he said, including the infamous trial of Rudolf Slansky as a "Zionist conspirator."
Forman draws an even more far-reaching analogy: "I believe that the most important conflict in the history of mankind is between the individual and institutions. Man creates institutions, which then assume total power and believe that they own man. That's the theme of 'Goya's Ghosts.'"
Forman doubts that 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."
"Goya's Ghosts" opens July 20 at Laemmle Theatres' Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center 5 in Encino, as well as at the Landmark in Los Angeles and Edwards University Town Center in Irvine.
For more information, go to http://www.goyasghoststhefilm.com.