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.