‘Charlatan’: Film Review

Agnieszka Holland's biopic of Czech faith healer Jan Mikolášek is an uneven but not uninteresting balance of moral inquiry and queer romance.

Agnieszka Holland
Ivan Trojan, Juraj Loj, Josef Trojan, Jaroslava Pokorná, Jiří Černý, Miroslav Hanuš

1 hour 58 minutes

At several points in “Charlatan,” the camera looks glossily on as our protagonist holds small bottles of amber liquid to the light, academically scrutinizing their contents as they beam a light golden glow onto his features: an effect both ennobling and almost romantic. The man is Jan Mikolášek, a famous Czech herbalist and healer with almost uncanny powers of intuitive diagnosis; the radiant bottles, meanwhile, contain various samples of human urine. This amusing disconnect between base content and burnished treatment somewhat echoes the conflicted perspective of Agnieszka Holland’s handsome, intelligently questioning but slightly dry biopic. Caught between a respectful tribute to Mikolášek’s medical achievements and a more salacious examination of his moral transgressions — with a tender if speculative gay romance propped somewhere in between — it’s an ambitious portrait of human imperfection that doesn’t strain to arouse much affection for its subject in the audience.

Holland has been prolific of late: “Charlatan” is the Polish director’s third Berlinale premiere in four years, following the striking, prize-winning mystery “Spoor” and last year’s “Mr. Jones,” a sturdy English-language biopic set against the backdrop of the Holodomor. Unspooling out of competition at the fest, the principally Czech-produced “Charlatan” has dimmer international distribution prospects than those two titles, given its studious, few-fireworks approach and a niche subject largely unknown beyond home turf: In the Czech Republic, where it bows theatrical on March 26, it will have an easier time finding an audience, thanks in largely part to the forceful presence of local star Ivan Trojan in the lead.

In a neat casting coup, the role of Mikolášek is split between Trojan and his 18-year-old son Josef, for the purposes of a jaggedly sprawling timeline that covers both World Wars and three regime changes in the former Czechoslovakia. Marek Epstein’s dense, only loosely factual script covers a lot of ground in two hours, though its initially zigzagging structure may seem haphazard to viewers uninformed about both Mikolášek and his place in (or rather, adjacent to) the political system. The film opens on the death of Czech Communist president Antonín Zápotocký in 1957, which we gradually come to understand also sounded a death knell for Mikolášek’s career as a renowned faith healer, who had practiced his urinary-analysis magic across three decades on celebrities, Nazi officials and Zápotocký himself, as well as queues of regular folk turning up at his luxurious rural clinic.

From this narrative pivot point, “Charlatan” cross-cuts liberally between Mikolášek’s formative youth and septuagenarian downfall, marking time shifts visually through the varying palette and desaturation of Martin Strba’s attractive lensing: All but monochromatic in the darkest days of Communist interference, and radiantly sun-gilded in happier, healthier times. The younger Trojan cuts a solemn, severe figure as the teenage son of a humble gardener, whose delicate affinity for the natural world belies a reckless streak of violence just below the surface: What he does when tasked with dispatching a sack full of newborn kittens won’t win him many viewers’ affections.

Sensing that he has a rare homeopathic instinct, he trains as an apprentice to crotchety village healer Mülbacherová (Jaroslava Pokorná) — to the consternation of his father, who sees her as nothing more than a crank. As indicated by the film’s title, it’s far from the first time in his career he’ll face such skepticism over his chosen branch of alternative medicine. Still, his eerily reliable diagnoses and cures prove the foundation of a career far grander than his mentor’s, as we skip ahead to his most lucrative years, when the sheer scale of his clientele demanded he hire an assistant.

Enter burly, taciturn manual laborer František Palko (Juraj Loj), who offers Mikolášek unwavering loyalty and discretion through his boss’s most ethically dubious business decisions. An erotic current between the men is clear from their first scene together, though an eventual secret romance between them — an arc you might expect to dominate the storytelling — blooms late in the screenplay. Its somewhat tentative development is perhaps down to the fact that it’s the film’s least factually concrete subplot. Mikolášek’s homosexuality was never confirmed, but Holland and Epstein make a stirring case for how his attachment to Palko might have factored into the show trial that dominates “Charlatan’s” latter half: No longer protected by the late Zápotocký, he was arrested by a new Communist government determined to denounce his informally qualified medical standing.

I only do what nature allows me, and what God allows nature,” Mikolášek says in his defense; assisted by the elder Trojan’s grave, thoughtful performance, the film casts more doubt on his allegiances than his convictions. It’s his chemistry with Loj’s warmer, more sensual presence as Palko that keeps the film, overstuffed and short on humor as it is, from getting turgid, along with the filmmakers’ own clear faith in their flawed subject. For all the other ambiguities retained in an enigmatic protagonist that the film — despite its fictional embellishments — never quite cracks, “Charlatan” appears firmly convinced that he was no phoney.

Popular on Variety

'Charlatan': Film Review

Reviewed at Soho Screening Rooms, London, Feb. 12, 2020. (In Berlin Film Festival.) Running time: 118 MIN.

Production: (Czech Republic-Ireland-Poland-Slovakia) A Marlene Film production in co-production with Czech Television, Barrandov Studio, Rozhlas A Televízia Slovenska, Certicon, Vladimír and Taťána Maříkovi, Magic Lab, Studio Metrage, Moderator Inwestycje. (International sales: Films Boutique, Berlin.) Producers: Šárka Cimbalová, Kevan Van Thompson. Co-producers: Mike Downey, Sam Taylor, Klaudia Śmieja-Rostworowska, Lívia Filusová.

Crew: Director: Agnieszka Holland. Screenplay: Marek Epstein. Camera: Martin Strba. Editor: Pavel Hrdlicka. Music: Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz.

With: Ivan Trojan, Juraj Loj, Josef Trojan, Jaroslava Pokorná, Jiří Černý, Miroslav Hanuš. (Czech dialogue)

More Film

  • Quicksand Scandinavian Cinema

    Sweden Is Not on Lockdown Despite Coronavirus Threat

    While most of the world is on lockdown mode, Sweden has taken a different route, with schools, restaurants, some theaters and most public venues still open. The Swedish health minister, Stefan Löfven, has asked people to behave like “adults” and not give in to the panic, and advised them to work from home, as well [...]

  • Extinction

    Coronavirus Causes 85% Crash in Asia Box Office

    Theatrical box office in the Asia-Pacific region tumbled a massive 85% in the first two months of the year. The coronavirus caused cinema closures, audience hesitation, and a halving of the number of film releases. Asia is home to the five of the top ten cinema markets outside North America. According to data from the [...]

  • Lindsay Lindenbaum on 'Tomboy,' Female Drummers,

    How 'Tomboy' Filmmaker Used SXSW Cancellation to Fine-Tune Her Film

    “Tomboy” filmmaker Lindsay Lindenbaum spent five years following four female drummers trying to make it in a male-dominated world. Lindenbaum profiles Bobbye Hall, a drummer who started at Motown Records in the late ’60s and later toured with Bob Dylan. Samantha Maloney, whose obsession with MTV’s “Headbangers Ball” as a teenager led her to fall [...]

  • Wonder Woman 1984

    Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Wipe Out All of Summer Blockbuster Season?

    Say goodbye to blockbuster season — at least for this year. After would-be summer hits from Disney, Warner Bros., and Universal already vacated their release dates, Sony Pictures announced Monday that its comic book adventure “Morbius,” “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” and virtually all of its upcoming tentpoles were being moved into the fall or beyond. It was [...]

  • Dodgers Stadium Empty

    Movie Theaters and Concerts Could See Major Attendance Drop Post-Pandemic (Study)

    After a month of increasing anxiety and self-isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, audiences in the U.S. are largely not eager to return to public events once the crisis subsides, according to a new study. In a survey of 1,000 consumers in the U.S., 44% of respondents said they would attend fewer large public events, [...]

  • 'Dolphin Reef' Review: A Dazzling Look

    'Dolphin Reef' on Disney Plus: Film Review

    Out of the vast universe of nature documentaries, I don’t think I’m alone in finding films about life under the sea to occupy a special place. The very fact that they exist, of course, is amazing — though when you watch one, part of the wonder is that you’re not thinking about how aquamarine filmmakers [...]

  • CONJURING DAD – In Disney and

    What's Coming to Disney Plus in April 2020

    Disney Plus will continue to expand its library next month, adding older films as well as new episodes of its original programming. Less than a month after its release on March 6, Pixar’s “Onward” is making an early jump to Disney’s streaming platform amid the coronavirus pandemic. With the vast majority of theaters now closed [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content