Saturday, June 15, 2024

Holland’s Charlatan

Jan Mikolasek was not a urologist, or even a doctor, but he claimed to diagnose all his patients’ ailments from a yellow liquid sample. Maybe he could, or maybe he was phenomenally lucky. However, his luck ran out when Czechoslovak Communist President Antonin Zapotocky died. Without the protection of his most famous patient, Mikolasek faces the wrath of the Communist state in Agnieszka Holland’s Charlatan, which screens during MoMI’s Holland retrospective.

The film is titled
Charlatan, but that is the regime’s perspective. Holland and screenwriters Marek Epstein, Martin Sulc, and Jaroslav Sedlacek largely accept the efficacy of his herbal treatments (he was a licensed herbalist). In flashbacks, we see Mikolasek train with a traditional country healer, after his horrific stint in the army. Even if he benefits from a massive and persistent placebo effect, there is little criticism of his practice from from his patients.

On the other hand, there obvious reasons why the Party is out to get him. Yes, he treated the occupying National Socialists (while covertly funding the resistance), but the Party appreciated those who sucked up to power. On the other hand, he fought the nationalization of his practice. He is also gay, secretly engaging in a sexual relationship with his married assistant Frantisek Palko, but maybe not without completely arousing suspicions.

Charlatan, Holland (the Polish auteur) returns to the Czechoslovakian Communist nightmare experience and reunites with Ivan Trojan, who co-starred in her monumental Burning Bush. Charlatan certainly reflects the paranoia and capriciousness of life under the Communist regime, but it is much more a psychological study, of a somewhat strange and deeply flawed individual. Of course, those shortcomings do not justify the Party’s orchestrated campaign to trump up charges against him.

Mikolasek is a hard character to embrace, but Trojan’s performance is complex and fascinating, in cerebral and neurotic ways. His son Josef Trojan is also well-cast as the teen Mikolasek seen in flashbacks. Juraj Loj counterbalances him impressively as the forceful, virile Palko. Based on his work in
Charlatan, it is easy to imagine Loj playing Stanley Kowalski in a Czech revival of Streetcar. Trojan and Loj dominate the film, but Jiri Sterny adds subtle ambiguity as Zlatohlavek, Mikolasek’s state-appointed attorney, who might even try to represent his client’s interests, at least to some extent.

adeptly recreates the grim depression of the Communist era and the pastoral nostalgia of the pre-War era. Yet, viewers should be warned Holland serves up plenty of scenes focusing on sediment-laden vials of urine and Trojan’s naked pale white body. A little less of both would certainly boost the film’s watchability. Still highly recommended for its insightful portrayal of life and oppression under Communism, Charlatan screens tomorrow (6/16) at MoMI.