Kinoteka Festival film review: Charlatan
Written by Arthur
Performances – 8 – 6
6/10 Rating 7/10
Agnieszka Holland’s healer biopic refrains from a simple diagnosis of its subject.
Director: Agnieszka Holland Cast: Ivan Trojan, Juraj Loj, Josef Trojan Certificate: TBC Watch Charlatan online in the UK: Kinoteka 2020
The Czech Republic’s submission for Best International Feature Film at the 2021 Oscars, Charlatan comes from Polish director Agnieszka Holland, a veteran filmmaker known for movie and TV work made across wildly different countries and cultures. Her previous feature, the largely English-language Mr Jones, followed a Welsh journalist uncovering an international conspiracy in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Charlatan is also inspired by a real-life figure falling foul of forces in power, this time self-taught herbalist and faith healer, Jan Mikolášek.
Lightly fictionalised by screenwriter Marek Epstein, Charlatan jumps back and forth in time to document Mikolášek at various points in his life, with Ivan Trojan playing him for the majority of the film. In the early 20th century, Jan earns fame and fortune courtesy of his unusual methods to cure a wide range of ailments; he seems able to diagnose people based purely on visual examination of specific physical traits, most regularly by observing simple urine samples. A local institution where he lives in Czechoslovakia by the time of the Second World War, he gains further wealth and reputation during the Nazi occupation and also under Communist rule.
His most famous client ends up being the Czech president, Antonín Zápotocký, who dies in 1957. After this, Mikolášek is put on trial by the Communist government for what was long, though relatively quietly, considered charlatanism while he had protection from the country’s leader. Mikolášek’s exploits are revealed in flashback as he is questioned by a defence lawyer in his cell.
Josef Trojan (the real-life son of Ivan Trojan) plays Mikolášek at the youngest age we see him in the film, for some of the most arresting scenes. The night before his sister is scheduled to have her gangrenous leg amputated, he sneaks into her room and insists on applying an herbal mix of his own to the affected area, ultimately reducing the severity of the required operation the next day thanks to his intervention. Following this success, Mikolášek manages to talk his way into an apprenticeship of sorts under the watch of an elder herbalist and healer, Mülbacherová (Jaroslava Pokorná). One day, he is tasked with drowning some kittens that her cat bore – via a sack to be thrown into a river, ostensibly to make their suffering as brief as possible. On the way to the river, he seems anguished and stops. One wonders if the squeals from the sack have dissuaded Mikolášek from going through with the deed, but then he abruptly begins bashing the sack against a rock, something his nearby mentor catches sight of; it is said to be the cause of them parting ways.
This is an absolutely horrifying scene, particularly for animal lovers, not least because Holland’s sustained austere and unsentimental tone means the viewer is treated to distressing sound design without any cutaways, plus a glimpse of gore staining the big rock. The scene would seem to be present to give a glimpse of Mikolášek’s burgeoning dark side, later realised in manipulating and controlling behaviour as an adult in his interpersonal relationships; prior to this, we’re shown him threatening his father with an axe after losing control during a dispute. Unlike with some biopics, this is not a figure where the character psychology is clear-cut.
Where the light fictionalisation comes in is through the depiction of a secret years-long gay romance with taciturn assistant Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj). This plot thread is inspired by enduring speculation related to the fact his assistant lived on the practice premises with Mikolášek, and that Mikolášek’s marriage was a failed one. Charlatan is very much an episodic film, and the secret romance elements – introduced in the second hour even though we meet Palko in the present day at the very start – lend the film a compelling through-line for the second half, contextualising some of the early stretch’s more puzzling aspects.