'Charlatan': Film Review | Berlin 2020

CHARLATAN Still 1 - Berlin International Film Festival - H 2020
Courtesy of Marlene Film Productions
A rich psychological puzzle about a compromised political survivor.

A brilliant, self-taught Czech healer who cured millions with herbal medicine is threatened by the Communist authorities in the late 1950s in Agnieszka Holland’s freely inspired biopic.

Who today has heard of Jan Mikolasek (1887-1973), once revered as a celebrated faith healer who is said to have helped millions (including the Communist president of Czechoslovakia and Nazi bigwig Martin Bormann) with his herbal remedies? A figure of blinding light and darkest shadow, he springs ambiguously to life in director Agnieszka Holland’s fascinating period drama Charlatan, in a dazzling perf by top Czech actor Ivan Trojan. Though shot in the most classic of idioms, the film commands attention with its mesmerizing performances and lively cross-cutting between key moments in the hero’s life. Playing out of competition as a Berlinale Special Gala (the director’s 2017 feature Spoor won Berlin’s Silver Bear), the Czech-language drama should make an appealing festival and art house entry.

Coming on the heels of Mr. Jones, Holland’s historical drama set during Stalin’s genocidal famine in Ukraine, Charlatan may be less overtly political, but it is more engrossing as it peels away the layers and probes the psyche of a very compromised survivor of the Czech system. Marek Epstein’s screenplay declares it is only loosely inspired by the real Mikolasek’s life, and Holland has stated that the historical record is sketchy and contradictory, leaving her free to fictionally interpret her subject. She and Epstein weave the complicated political situation of 20th century East Europe through Mikolasek’s personal life and mission, surprising the viewer time and again with sudden new perspectives.

Ultimately, the film leaves a bitter taste as the broad strokes depicting a self-sacrificing holistic healer are overlaid with finer details about his hair-trigger personality, his adept use of political expediency for his own ends and his shocking lack of morality towards those closest to him.

It’s natural that at first the audience is completely seduced by the well-dressed, calm and self-assured healer, whose hot hands, sudden bursts of uncanny intuition and ability to diagnose everything from diabetes to kidney stones at one glance amaze and disconcert his skeptics and detractors. The son of a country gardener with a natural interest in plants and their properties, he learned his craft — which basically consists of visually analyzing urine samples against the light — at the side of the no-nonsense widow Mrs. Mulbacherova (Jaroslava Pokorna), whose clientele of country folk stretched far down the road, seven days a week.

Young Mikolasek, played with fearsome intensity by the main actor’s 18-year-old son Josef Trojan, has some skirmishes with the old lady but demonstrates psychic gifts that are going to surpass his master one day. His violent temper is twice foreshadowed: once when his father forbids him to see the healer and the boy goes after him with an axe; and again when Mulbacherova orders him to drown a sack of newborn kittens. On both occasions he loses control over himself, just as, when he was a young soldier, orders to execute a fellow soldier pushed him over the edge.

All this backstory is smoothly relayed by editor Pavel Hrdlicka, while the main story begins with the political crisis that engulfs the 70-year-old Mikolasek when Czech president Antonin Zapotocky, one of his most illustrious clients, dies in 1957. With his protector gone, he falls victim to the brutal animosity of authorities in the post-Stalinist era.

But he isn’t alone in attracting their wrath. When his earnings enable him to purchase a sprawling villa and turn it into a luxurious clinic, he also hires an assistant. At the time, Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj) is an unskilled, out-of-work laborer who can barely read and write, but he offers his employer one invaluable thing: absolute loyalty. In the ruthless social and political context, it will later prove a recipe for the youth's undoing undoing.

Meanwhile, Mikolasek’s attraction to Frantisek evolves into an affair, and since homosexuality is a criminal offense, it is one more thing to hang over his head by the authorities, from the Gestapo to the Communists. As Trojan and Loj tussle on the floor before the latter’s sexual surrender, the actors reveal the healer’s magnetism and unshakeable will to overcome obstacles, like the fact that the sunny Frantisek is a happily married man. The film’s final scene is a knock-out, pulling together all the clues to Mikolasek’s eerie personality in one unbelievable minute.

Underscoring the quality of Holland’s understated filmmaking, even the tech work finds new approaches to the Cold War years in Eastern Europe. Cinematographer Martin Strba artfully doses color from the black-and-white newsreels of the Stalinist era to strongly desaturated scenes of the healer’s bourgeois surroundings, then backtracking to bursts of color in apolitical nature. The use of period recordings of Dvorak and other Czech composers is right on the button.

Production companies: Marlene Film, Film and Music Entertainment, Madants, Furia Film
Cast: Ivan Trojan, Josef Trojan, Juraj Loj, Jaroslava Pokorna, Marek Epstein, Joachm Paul Assbock, Jan Vlasak, Martin Mysicka, Jana Kvantikova, Miroslav Hanus, Vaclav Kopta, Jana Olhova 
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Screenwriter: Marek Epstein
Producers: Sarka Cimbalova, Kevan Van Thompson
Co-producers: Mike Downey, Michal Krecek, Klaudia Smieja-Rostworowska, Sam Taylor, Livia Filusova
Executive producer: Ales Tybi
Director of photography: Martin Strba
Production designer: Milan Bycek
Costume designer: Katarina Bielikova
Editor: Pavel Hrdlicka
Music: Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special Gala)
World sales: Films Boutique

118 minutes