‘Charlatan’ Showcases Holland’s Penchant for Human Ambiguity

A still from 'Charlatan'. Jan Mikolášek is shown in close-up, in profile, holding a small square bottle full of urine, which he is holding up to the light, the yellow twinge reflecting back on his face. He is a white man in his 40s/50s with slicked back brown short hair and wearing a lab coat and pinstripe shirt and tie. His assistant stands behind him looking on.
Strand Releasing

Jan Mikolášek died in relative obscurity for one who survived two world wars, two totalitarian regimes, and the collapse and reformation of nations — all while maintaining an unorthodox medical practice. The informally trained doctor diagnosed his patients almost solely through urine samples in the clear glass bottles he insisted on, then working largely with herbal remedies to heal what he diagnosed. He served his community — be they villagers, Nazis, or Communist officials — until shortly after the death of his last patron Antonín Zápotocký, head of the Czech communist party. Then it was his turn. 

Charlatan director Agnieszka Holland picks up at this moment, rolling credits over footage from Zápotocký’s funeral. The show trial forms the framework as the narrative flashes back through Mikolášek’s career, the charges levied against him prompting explorations into his past rather than a strict chronology. Time is liquid in Holland’s framework; years are missed in favour of moments of interpersonal connection. The latter element highlights both cruelty and care, sadism and a deep calling towards healing. The result is a piece that eschews easy answers about Mikolášek’s morality, and the morality of saving the lives of those destined to mass murder and genocide, while staying adamant in the reality that his folk-based work helped more than it hurt. 

Father and son Ivan Trojan and Josef Trojan play the adult and youthful Mikolášek — a brilliant casting choice for the family resemblance and their ability to take on the same studied, self-assured mannerisms. Both move seamlessly between warmly authoritative as they treat scared, screaming patients (though sometimes cut with a slight arrogance around less life-threatening cases) and a cold need to destroy. As his assistant and sometimes lover František Palko, Juraj Loj plays his faith in Mikolášek as based in true love as well as a desperate desire for his survival to be worth the means. The sections set during the Nazi occupation are lent extra poignancy through this dichotomy of pragmatic survival, search for life-saving purpose, and levity in the most private moments. 

Sound and set design help delineate the story’s changing perspectives and eras. Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz’s score is minimalist and dissonant, highlighting the tensions inherent in early- to mid-20th century Czech society. A repeated use of Dvorak’s “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka — once at a high society dinner, and then earlier and scratchier in his apprenticeship — shows the changing technologies and circumstances of Mikolášek’s practice. Cinematographer Martin Strba fills the claustrophobic, imprisoned present with grey, flat colours, while the past sees dappled sunlight and warmer washes even in its most disturbing moments. 

Charlatan loses sight of some cohesion by focusing on a human portrait rather than a point-by-point historical retelling. It is a stronger biopic for throwing aside a typical formula and trusting viewers to stay with its captivating character study. It is a strong, vibrant, disquieting entry into Mikolášek’s life and half-lost legacy.

Charlatan is out in cinemas and on VOD in the US from July 23rd

by Carmen Paddock

Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie

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