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Agnieszka Holland is not one for heroes and villains. The Polish director has revisited the darkest power abuses of Europe’s last century throughout her career – depicting the Holocaust in Europa Europa (1991) and In Darkness (2011), and Soviet Ukraine’s Holodomor in Mr. Jones (2019) – with an emphasis not on ideological divisions but the capacity within every human, tested by high-stakes oppression, for both great integrity and the pettiest of cruelties.
A deep moral ambiguity drives psychological suspense, too, in Charlatan, her loosely inspired biopic of Jan Mikolášek, a herbalist persecuted by the Czechoslovak state. Regimes come and go in a film set in the communist 1950s that flashes back frequently to the Nazi-occupied 30s, but the pressure on citizens to bend their allegiance to corrupt systems, or at least blend in, is constant, with falling out of favour for refusing to conform potentially deadly.
Mikolášek, though compelled to heal, cares little for bedside manner. He is played with a hard exterior and controlling streak by famed Czech actor Ivan Trojan (and his son Josef, as his younger self). Any easy tenderness has been stifled by the wider brutality of these decades. A traumatic experience as a young soldier has left scars both psychological and literal. Homosexuality was illegal, and Mikolášek’s 20-year love affair with his younger, married assistant František Palko (Juraj Loj) remained painfully compromised – defined by their need to hide. Time shifts fluidly, and an air of atrocity hangs close.
The film opens with the death in 1957 of Czech president Antonín Zápotocký, who Mikolášek had been treating, and with it the end of his special protection. Numerous notorious power players, including high-ranking Nazi Martin Bormann, appeared on Mikolášek’s patient list, but most of his time is spent diagnosing the locals who daily snake out in long queues from the door of his practice in a sprawling old mansion outside Prague. He is the first to insist he is not a doctor. He prescribes plant-based remedies based on his intuitive diagnosis of urine, holding bottles of the amber liquid up to the light. It’s a method he had persuaded grouchy village healer Mülbacherová (Jaroslava Pokorna) to pass on, after sensing he had a rare healing ability.
The inevitable arrest comes, as Mikolášek is accused of charlatanism to line his own pockets and the strychnine poisoning of two party bigwigs. Holland casts his gift as genuine, which may sit uncomfortably in today’s era of embattled science, but the film is less concerned with giving a verdict on Mikolášek’s efficacy than teasing out more general philosophical questions around faith, loyalty and freedom of expression. Alternative medicine, for Mikolášek, was a calling, and one he perceived as a right outside of state jurisdiction.
There is little levity or inventive flair in this handsomely shot portrait of totalitarian malady, but it builds to a devastating close. “The worst punishment is having a choice,” it’s said early on – and the twisted options under these regimes produced few winners.
Where to begin with Agnieszka Holland
By Michael Brooke
Mr. Jones review: the horrors of the Holodomor, witnessed by a Welsh reporter
By Philip Kemp
Mr. Jones first look: Agnieszka Holland reprises the exposé of Stalin’s Ukrainian genocide
By Nick James
Servants takes up the fight to separate church from Czechoslovak state
By Thomas Flew
Sight & Sound June 2021
In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy