The Movie Waffler New Release Review [VOD] - CHARLATAN | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [VOD] - CHARLATAN

charlatan review
The story of infamous Czech healer Jan Mikolášek.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Agnieszka Holland

Starring: Ivan Trojan, Josef Trojan, Juraj Loj, Daniela Voráčková, Jaroslava Pokorná

charlatan poster

Suddenly, everybody is an expert on pharmaceuticals. To jab, or not to jab; while armchair experts recite the varying impacts of vaccine strains with all the studied confidence of a jaded sommelier (if you can get it, then the Johnson & Johnson one is meant to be best against mutations of Covid, according to a man in the queue for Tesco yesterday). Plus, jab-paranoia aside, there is the implication that, increasingly, our lives are bolstered by prescription meds: do you know anyone who isn’t on some sort of drug or another? Conspiracists argue that ‘Big Pharma’ strategizes to keep us dependent and negative blooty on their pricey treatments at the expense of natural, and more effective, remedies, and in the UK alone 17% of people are on powerful anti-depressants (fwiw, knowing people who are doctors, I find it very hard to believe that anyone would put themselves through the expense and heart-breaking toil of medical training simply to become a shill for shady corporate shenanigans...).

Charlatan, the latest film by Polakiem legend Agnieszka Holland, is a therefore timely biopic of Jan Mikolášek, a herbal and faith healer who practiced in what is now the Czech Republic throughout the first half of the 20th century. Cocking a snook to contemporary medical practices, Mikolášek’s methods involved looking at glass bottles of his patients’ urine, diagnosing based on the consistency of the piss, and duly prescribing medication consisting of herbs and barks from the garden.

charlatan review

People certainly seemed to believe in Mikolášek - the film opens with crowds of people queuing to see the herbal apothecarist, clutching little yellow flasks (over the course of his career, Mikolášek supposedly treated five million people). But, as the irl debate surrounding the controversial figure implies, was Mikolášek simply selling hope to the poor masses?

While there were, probably sensible, questions regarding  Mikolášek at the time, there is, however, no such dispute in Holland’s hagiographical film, which gives its central figure a maverick dignity. We pick up with Mikolášek in the twilight of his career, his history told to us through flashback; the love of nature and initial training as healer, grim involvement in the war, and eventual homosexual love affairs (criminalised at that point in time).

charlatan review

The film is shot with that kind of mahogany sheen of quality drama: the deep wooden colours of Mikolášek’s office contrasting the washed out greys of exterior Czech (in the background, Commie car spotters may notice a de rigueur Trebant!). Golden flasks of illuminated urine are photographed with the same careful detail of Tarantino filming someone’s feet. It’s striking to look at, and Ivan Trojan’s performance is typically magnetic. His Mikolášek is bookish, but deeply repressed, a man who is attempting to stand against suffering and needless death, but, as is the natural way of things, inevitably fighting a losing battle.

The problem with Charlatan, and by extension, all biopics, is that by and large, real life isn’t necessarily narratively interesting. With its stubborn sidestep of any exploration of the veracity of Mikolášek’s practice, the film avoids what is possibly the most intriguing aspect of the tale. Third act plot dynamics involve the Communist regime cracking down on the individualist medico, but, despite being true to life, this peripeteia itself has a narrative inexorableness. In order to create moments of individual drama, the film cherry picks harrowing events from Mikolášek’s biography. A typical tableau involves the boy herbalist tasked with drowning a sack of unwanted kittens from the farmyard cat. Frustrated at being unable to save the little fur babies, Mikolášek kills them to death by bashing the sack against some rocks. It’s a shocking moment, and one which, in its random nature, is narratively unearned.

charlatan review

The film does, nonetheless, come alive when it focuses on the relationship between Mikolášek and his stoically handsome Daniel Craig-alike assistant (Juraj Loj), depicting layers of cultural suppression and shame being pulled back with all the urgent force of a ripped off band-aid. When depicting the human interaction, and forbidden passions (the sex is preceded by uncomfortable violence) of two people acting within the laws of love and nature, and not mandated structures, Charlatan comes closer to realising its central themes.

Charlatan is on UK/ROI VOD from May 7th.

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