Charlatan | QFest 2021

Agnieszka Holland certainly has a knack for finding biographical subjects whose lives illuminate historical periods—Europa, Europe, and Burning Bush come immediately to mind—and she follows that principle with her latest film, Charlatan, a biopic of the Czech herbal healer/unrine analyst (or faith healer, or fraud, depending on who you ask) Jan Mikolášek, who died in 1973 at the age of 84. When he was born, the area now known as the Czech Republic was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and he lived through, among other things, two World Wars, German occupation, and a Communist takeover. He was also a gay man at a time and in a place when that was not exactly the safest thing to be.

Mikolášek was not a physician, and despite his white coat and fondness for diagnostics and prescribing, never claimed to be. Yet people lined up for consultations, many traveling long distances for the opportunity. He passed a diagnostic test set him by Nazi officials (identifying the disease afflicting various individuals by examining urine samples, including one unfortunate person who had died since the sample was taken), and won release from a Nazi detention camp by successfully treating the leg of Antonin Zápotocky, who would later become Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia. So he was no village healer, but an influential person who won the respect of many, some of them in high places.

Charlatan is a well-made film from an artistic point of view.  The acting is excellent, including Ivan Trojan and his son Josef Trojan as Mikolášek at different periods of his life, Jaroslava Porkoná as the village healer and early mentor to Mikolášek, and Juraj Loj as Mikolášek’s married love interest František Palko. The cinematography by Martin Strba, vibrant and colorful in Mikolášek’s early years, and somber and desaturated later in his life, is first-rate, as is the production design by Milan Bycek, art direction by Jiri Karasek, and costume design by Katarina Bielikova.

The main problem with Charlatan can be traced to the screenplay by Marek Epstein, based on an idea by Martin Sulc and Jaroslav Sedlácek, which seems unsure of what point it’s trying to make. Or, for that matter, what kind of a person the film’s central character really was. In a film built around the life story of a single person, that’s a problem.

Was Mikolášek really a charlatan, or just someone who refused to bow to the demands of the Communist version of Big Medicine? Or a little of both? Did the herbal remedies work for chemical reasons, or was he more of a faith healer? It’s clear that Mikolášek could be self-centered and ethicaly dubious, but did we really need that gruesome scene where he is supposed to drown a bag of kittens, but takes a much more violent means to the same end?

Despite an abundance of title cards at the beginning and end of this film, for most of its running time it makes little effort to identify when and where particular scenes are taking place. Maybe those kinds of details would be more obvious to a European audience, fans of herbal medicine, or people already familiar with Mikolášek’s story, but I was frequently confused over much of this film’s 118-minute length as to where we were and what was happening.

Charlatan is the Czech Republic’s nomination for the Foreign Language Oscar, was nominated for 14 Czech Lion Awards, and has played at a number of festivals around the world, so clearly some people got more out of it than I did. So, if you’re up for something different, and/or appreciate great cinematography and historical detail, you might want to give this one a try. | Sarah Boslaugh

QFEST runs April 16-25, with programming only available in Missouri and Illinois. Tickets to single films are $14 for general admission and $12 for Cinema St. Louis members and students. Once you begin watching, a film remains available for 48 hours, and several passes are also available. Further information is available from the QFest web site.

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