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Film review: Charlatan

18 June 2021

Stephen Brown reviews a film on digital release

Mikolášek (Ivan Trojan) and Frantisek (Juraj Loj) in Charlatan

Mikolášek (Ivan Trojan) and Frantisek (Juraj Loj) in Charlatan

THE film Charlatan (Cert. 15) is described as “loosely” based on the life of the Czech healer Jan Mikolášek. Just as well; for not everyone accepts his claim to have cured millions through herbal remedies and their faith in God. Agnieszka Holland’s version appears to consider him on the side of the angels: flawed (who isn’t?), but sincere and efficacious in his treatment of clients.

The film begins with the death in 1957 of Czechoslovakia’s President. As the country loses its leader, so does Mikolášek his protector, who was among many notable figures made better by the herbalist. Jan’s popularity as a healer, his affluent lifestyle, and his earlier associations under the Nazis irked the communist regime. An arrogant manner gives us a clue (never adequately followed up) to his psychological disposition.

The middle-aged Mikolášek (played by Ivan Trojan) barks out orders to minions and patients. He seems lacking in compassion, only interested in successfully diagnosing complaints. Yet he quietly makes generous donations to charities and needy relatives. The film fluctuates between various time-spans. Young Jan (Josef Trojan) works as a gardener. He begins to realise the healing properties of plants. This leads him to Josefa Mühlbacherová (Jaroslava Pokorná). She specialises in urinary diagnosis, which enables her to prescribe appropriate vegetal remedies.

Later, as a qualified medical herbalist, Jan has his own practice, in which he employs Frantisek (Juraj Loj) as assistant. There is an immediate attraction, which develops romantically. As the film sees it, all Jan’s suppressed emotions are attributable to concealing his homosexuality, any outward expression of which was a criminal offence and, in the eyes of the Church, a sin. We watch as Jan, bare-legged, kneeling on pebbles strewn at the foot of a large crucifix, prays for forgiveness.

Later, he is hauled in front of the Gestapo to prove his medicinal skills, when he treats eminent Nazis such as Martin Borman. Suspicion of being a collaborator hangs over him, but Mikolášek claims that his only interest was in healing people, irrespective of their ideologies. Charlatan makes regular mention of Jan’s Christianity. Priests send clients to him. He doesn’t demur when people ask him to pray for them so that they know by whose authority he practises folk medicine. “I only do what nature allows me and what God allows nature,” he tells Frantisek’s mother.

That’s only half of healing: the remainder depends on faith. When eventually he falls foul of the authorities, the film echoes Christ before Pilate. Jan has the ability to see deep into another’s soul, which, in his interrogator’s case, is drowning in exhaustion at having to exact confessions from innocent prisoners. The show trial that follows begins to question our former positive judgements.

To my mind, this comes far too late in a story billed as an examination of the thin line between good and evil which Mikolášek has precariously trodden. Until now, while his inner darkness and abrupt manner have been acknowledged, nothing has prepared us for what happens next. Saint or sinner? Charlatan leaves us emotionally with the jury still out.

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