Period films: not a big fan. Between the ludicrously rococo set designs, the blatant grabs for Best Costume Oscar, and those horrible innuendoes they try to pass off as "humor," period films and I have always been content to go our separate ways. So it came as no small surprise to realize that half an hour into Goya's Ghosts, I was totally into it.

Francisco Goya was one of the greatest painters of all time—no hyperbole. Best known for his nightmarish paintings of drowning dogs and Saturn eating his young, Goya was an absolute visionary—but by no means does this predicate an interesting biopic. Director Milos Forman apparently agrees, and instead, uses the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition to craft a dark and gripping film about the painter (Stellan Skarsgård), his teenage harlot muse Inés (Natalie Portman), and Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem), a duplicitous member of the Inquisition's torture committee.

Early in, it becomes clear that Goya's Ghosts has a lot to say about what's going on in the world today: Debates are waged over the credence of confessions induced by torture, and when Napoleon's army invades Spain, the soldiers are told they will be greeted as liberators. (My favorite political jab: casting doofus Randy Quaid as the roguish head of state.) But it's not all ham-fisted political parable—the plot moves along briskly, and never wallows in Girl with a Pearl Earring cheesy indulgence.

Javier Bardem is absolutely amazing here: his downcast eyes and half-mumbled speech convey more about his tragic character than any dialogue could. But no review of Goya's Ghosts would be complete without mention of Natalie Portman's appearance for the final two-thirds of the movie. Attack of the Clones fans be warned: Your Garden State girl demonstrates that 15 years of hardcore torture under the Spanish Inquisition can make even the hottest chick look like a retarded zombie leper from the set of Michael Jackson's Thriller.