Kinoteka Polish Film Festival: Charlatan Review
Charlatan (Šarlatán) is based, somewhat loosely, on the life of Jan Mikolášek (1889-1973), who cured many people by means of herbal and plant-based methods. Most of the action takes place in Communist-governed Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, which director Agnieszka Holland and DP Martin Strba give a grey and beige look to. This is to distinguish it from flashbacks detailing how Jan discovered his affinity for healing and the setting up of his practice in the years leading up to World War II. Looking for an assistant, Jan (Ivan Trojan, with Trojan‘s son Josef playing the younger Jan) finds František Palo (Juraj Loj), who rapidly becomes invaluable to him.
The title is ambiguous. Whatever you think of the efficacy of herbal medicine, it‘s clear that Jan believes in it - no snake oil on offer here – and the locals he treats are certainly grateful. Often he makes his diagnoses simply by looking at urine samples. He treats rich and poor people alike - which means that he sees Nazi officers in wartime and Party officials afterwards - and he also treats the president, Antonín Zápotocký, up to the latter's death in 1957.
The Communist authorities are suspicious of him, though. Ivan Trojan plays Mikolášek as a rather buttoned-up, reserved character, giving very little away, no doubt a necessary survival strategy in that country at that time. However, Marek Epstein‘s script ably leads us up to the revelation that Jan and František have crossed the line from professional colleagues to becoming lovers, at a time when homosexuality was illegal. It‘s possible to interpret some events towards the end of the film as motivated by the love of one man for the other.
The crisis in this story comes about when a package of herbal medicine, posted to two patients, is found to be contaminated with strychnine, with fatal results. The outcome of this is that Jan and František are put on trial for their lives.
Agnieszka Holland is Polish, but her ability to make films in her own country was curtailed when her third feature A Woman Alone ( Kobieta samotna) was banned in 1981 just as martial law was declared. Holland left the country and has worked abroad since, in France the UK, the USA as well as in Poland, and here in what is now the Czech Republic. (Her previous feature, Mr Jones, is also playing at this year‘s Kinoteka Film Festival.) Charlatan is a very ably-told story of a figure little known outside his country, and Holland and her collaborators keep the film compelling to the end.