Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

20th century struggle of the individual vs. the State in one unusual life

By Nora Lee Mandel

Charlatan (Šarlatán)
Directed by Agniezska Holland
Written by Marek Epstein
Produced by Šárka Cimbalová and Kevan Van Thompson
Czech Republic, Ireland, Slovakia, Poland. 118 mins. Not Rated
In Czech and German with English subtitles
With: Ivan Trojan, Josef Trojan, Juraj Loj, Jaroslava Pokorná, Jiří Černý, and Miroslav Hanuš
Strand Releasing on July 23, 2021 in Theaters, Virtual Cinemas and Premium Video On Demand Nationwide

Polish-born, Czech-trained director Agniezska Holland has dealt separately with Eastern Europe’s 20th century scourges: from Nazis, in Europa, Europa (1990) and In Darkness (W Ciemnosci) (2011), to Communist tyranny, in Burning Bush (Hořicí Keř) (2013). Through a fictionalized take on the life of Czech uroscopist (urine analyst) and herbal healer Jan Mikolášek, born 1889, she extends her look at the struggle of the individual vs. the State through more of the century onto one unusual life.

Making the epic both manageable and revelatory, Mikolášek’s life is divided into two chronological halves. In the grim, gray world of the 1940s to the 1950s, the older man (Ivan Trojan) frequently flashes back to his younger self (Josef Trojan, Ivan’s son in his striking film debut), when he was first a gardener surrounded by bright colors. Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz’s Eastern European drenched score helps to thematically tie the halves together. The inflection point that spurs this introspection is the death in 1957 of his sometime patient and patron Czech President Antonín Zápotocký. The newsreel footage of his funeral looks like Stalin’s that Sergei Loznitsa collected in State Funeral (2019).

Mikolášek practices his independent trade in a big villa, where hundreds and hundreds of all kinds of people, including priests and nuns, are waiting in long lines at his front gate for the chance to consult with him. One by one, each hands him a clear bottle of urine and identifies the gender and age of the provider. Mikolášek holds up each bottle to the light and looks at it intensely. The camera zooms into how his naked eye perceives the microscopic details of the yellow contents. Making tart advice about their lifestyles, he peremptorily pronounces their condition and quickly dictates one of his standard herbal mixtures as a tea, poultice, or douche treatment to his efficient assistant František Palko (Juraj Loj).

He only takes payment for the remedies, and gives cash to desperate ones who can’t afford his prescriptions, like one to take a child to the seashore for more sun. But he’s cruelly dismissive to members of his retinue, even as they warn that the Communist State Security is placing negative articles about him in the paper and stalking him. A former patient from “the Ministry” warns him to flee abroad as soon as possible – “The score is even now.”

Mikolášek flashes back to the first time officials gave him an impossible choice -- as a soldier in World War I, where he was distraught that he was capable of killing on command. Returning with a war injury to his father’s greenhouse, he also studies a huge medieval text on herbs. He secretly applies his new knowledge, and his hands, onto his seriously ill sister – and they work.

Convinced he has the gift of healing, he waits on a long line (just like the one we saw in his future) to seek an apprenticeship with a shrewd, elderly healer Josefa Mühlbacherová (Jaroslava Pokorná). He passes her tests – the first of several to prove his abilities over the years – and learns more specific diagnoses and tips for almost two years: “Never try to do a miracle”. The pious old lady insists it’s a spiritual blessing that must be venerated daily. He imitates her on his knees, but is convinced he’s channeling the power of nature, like Holland illustrated in Spoor (Pokot) (2017). So much, that he physically suffers when he can’t release this spirit into healings. Or is that just his ego?

His present is a prison. He either faces a mocking Interrogator (Miroslav Hanuš) or his young lawyer Zlatohlávek (Jiří Černý). So his mind goes back to when he first met his much younger assistant František. (Loj makes quite an impression entering as a hunk in his feature film debut.) Both are married – but are they flirting with each other? (So that’s why Strand Releasing, known for its gay catalog, picked up Charlatan after selection as the Czech Republic’s entry for the foreign language award, and reached the short-list.) As a model for the emotional level she wanted, Holland showed the cast her Total Eclipse (1995) about the love affair between young poet Arthur Rimbaud and his mentor Paul Verlaine. With František, Jan is very controlling, but seems a different, feeling person, bathed in warm, colorful light. The cinematographer is Martin Strba, previously on Holland’s team, along with star Ivan Trojan.

In most European countries at the time (let alone specifically under the Nazis and Communists), homosexuality was a crime. While Jan’s and František’s relationship is imagined by Czech scripter Marek Epstein, he did a lot of document research and interviews, and expanded on hints from people who knew them. Jan manages their secret, even from the Gestapo, by treating the ills of those at the highest levels of repressive regimes, who, in turn, protect him. If he has a conscience, he salves it over the years with contributions to the Resistance, church charities, and needy children.

In The Trial (2018), Loznitsa found the footage of a 1930 “show trial” with defendants anxious to say what they were supposed to – will Jan and František follow the planned script of confessions to trumped-up charges? Unlike most films on this period, Charlatan is as frank as it is cynical about what is heroism and nonconformity.

July 22, 2021

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

My reviews have appeared on: Film-Forward; FF2 Media; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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