The latest film from legendary director Agnieszka Holland (In Darkness) is an intimate portrait of one man’s life that is meant, it would seem, to highlight the conundrums and the constraints of life in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. But it takes on too much and stretches its self-assigned remit way beyond its limits. Charlatan tells an intriguing story about a compelling real-life character, but it is oddly inert, and can’t quite make all its many aspects gel into a wholly satisfying, or wholly coherent, story.
Jan Mikolášek was an herbal healer who operated in early-20th-century Czechoslovakia to great apparent success, and to the frequent consternation of shifting governments, in the interwar and postwar eras. The title of the film notwithstanding, Charlatan presumes that this man, who was not a medical doctor but acted as one, was the real deal, an intuitive who could accurately diagnose all manner of ailments by *checks notes* examining patients’ urine, which they brought to him in bottles. (Oh my god, there is so much bottled urine in this movie.) He then prescribed natural remedies derived from plants to cure them. People flocked in their thousands to see him, queueing up outside his mansion every day in the hopes that he would be able to treat them.
I mean, sure: There is much therapeutic value to be found in the natural world. Women herbalists have been dispensing such wisdom for millennia, until men’s ideas of medicine persecuted them as witches and cast them aside. (Later, corporate pharma would repackage their wisdom and patent it for their own profit.) And yet, for some reason, Charlatan — which is how the powers that be in the regimes he lived under saw him — chooses to focus its tale, only “loosely inspired” by reality anyway, on a man who was oppressed for his traditional take on medicine, when the woman who inspired and taught him (Jaroslava Pokorná) was right there for her story to be told. Instead, as per usual, she is mere backdrop, a supporting character in his journey.
Yes, in real life, Mikolášek (Ivan Trojan [Zelary]; the actor’s son, Josef Trojan, plays Mikolášek as a young man) was subjected to a show trial once the Communist rulers of 1950s Czechoslovakia marked him out as dangerous, so that was probably the hook screenwriter Marek Epstein decided was worth latching on to. Why did the Communists see him as such a threat that they would invent charges against him, which the film asserts that they did? Did they imagine him a genuine charlatan, so to speak, or was it that the healer was a Catholic who implored his patients to have “faith” that they could get better, a very anti-Communist notion? But wait! The film also concocts a homosexual relationship between Mikolášek and his assistant, Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj), so that’s tossed into the mix, too. Was it suspicions of “indecency” — homosexuality was illegal in Communist Czechoslovakia — that led authorities to zero in on Mikolášek? Except there’s little indication at all in the story, as it is told here, that the authorities were even aware of this relationship… which, again, has been invented for the film anyway.
Charlatan — which was the Czech submission to this year’s Oscars, and was shortlisted for Best International Feature Film — seems as bewildered by the motivations of those who came after Mikolášek as the healer does himself, even as the totalitarian regime created the oppressive framework in which this unconventional man lived and worked. If that’s the point, that cultural repression is arbitrary and even counterproductive, it gets lost in the film’s too-close focus. Intimately told stories are one thing — the performances are grippingly engaging — but this one is darn near myopic.