Agnieszka Holland (director)
07 May 2021 (released)
03 May 2021
This review was first published for the Made in Prague and Polish Kinoteca Film festival in 2020.
Charlatan is based on the true story of Jan Mikolášek (Ivan Trojan) who learns how to diagnose patient's illness by examining their urine and treating them through herbs and faith.
Jan from the opening scenes has done well for himself with long queues outside his home and surgery seeking treatment. It’s a large operation employing nurses and auxiliaries in his hospital. He has a personal assistant Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj) who dutifully sits in on the consultations taking detailed notes.
But this is post-war Czechoslovakia and the communist regime is in power with its agents and tentacles everywhere, and they don’t like his operations. As far as they are concerned, he is fraud exploiting the masses for self-interest.
The film flits about in time and memory as Jan learns his craft from an old woman and setting himself up on his own and enduring the years of Nazi occupation, becoming successful and harassed by the invaders.
It’s during these scenes that Jan’s character develops into a man whose intentions and actions are to do good but with a destructive selfish streak driven by the green-eyed dragon of envy. As felt by his colleague and friend Palko who on telling Jan that his wife if pregnant offers him some herbs to give to her. Knowing full well what they are for it’s a futile effort by Jan who is trying to keep some semblance of a relationship alive with Palko, his lover.
The time strands eventually converge, the hospital is raided, the patients thrown out and Palko and Jan arrested on serious trumped up charges and having to face the full force and corruption of the communist regime.
In the main this is a powerful character study of a complicated man living through some of the most complicated and miserable periods of Czechoslovakian history. The mental resources required to navigate these pressures were immense and there is some credit to Jan for having the strength of will to do so.
But it comes at a cost. His dedication to his work is beyond doubt but his absolute assurance clouds his judgement as the political and domestic realities building up around him. At times he appears to be no more than an impervious shell of a man, bitter and a coward.
Jan’s work undoubtably made him a target for both Nazi and communist philosophies: a man dedicated to the people, who became wealthy, popular and someone they couldn’t control; an anathema to totalitarian regimes.
The ideologies are ostensibly polar opposites, the reality is there is very little between them and these themes are vividly written by Marek Epstein and staged by director Agnieszka Holland during confrontations with both regimes as he demonstrates his gift to the Nazis and later on when Jan is questioned and tried by the Czech state.
The film is visually impressive though the switches between time and period jar the flow. And it doesn't stray too far from the central characters. It’s not a two hander by any means but this is very much Trojan’s and Loj’s film their performances compelling as they deal with devilishly complex desires and motives in the most difficult of situations.
Charlatan will be available on UK digital platforms from 7 May.