Monday, January 09, 2023

PSIFF ’23: Melchior the Apothecary

Melchior Wakenstede is not a doctor but he understands herbal remedies. When all else fails, he can sell a cup of wine, which always helps his customers feel better. Being a man of reason, by Medieval standards, the Sheriff immediately deputizes Wakenstede when a knight is murdered in the castle. Of course, discovering the guilty party and bringing them to justice are very different propositions in Elmo Nuganen’s smash Estonian hit, Melchior the Apothecary, which screens again during the 2023 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Knight Clingenstein just arrived in Tallinn from Gotland, but he already managed to make enemies with some of the locals. However, the coins stuffed in the mouth of his severed head were from Gotland. Wakenstede pretty quickly figures out the how, but the question of who remains.

In addition to a local merchant Clingenstein swindled (through force), Wakenstede’s inquiry takes him to the local monastery, where the brothers gave shelter to a hunchback who shared some nasty history with the knight. However, he is most likely not the mystery “Prisoner of Tallinn,” Wakenstede finds references to. Nor is it the sole remaining inmate of Tallinn’s municipal dungeon. That would be Rinus, the mad leper who murdered Wakenstede’s father.

Obviously, this is a highly sensitive scandal. Even the shrewd Wakenstede could use some help, but the Sheriff is entirely out of his depth. Providentially, a prospective apprentice presents herself to Wakenstede under the assumed (and masculine name) of “Gerke.” It is pretty obvious to viewers she is a woman who will fall for the apothecary, but apparently people’s gender-bending radar was not very well attuned during the Middle Ages.

Frankly, the business of Gerke’s passing is not very convincing, but the mystery is definitely intriguing stuff. The secret is not quite as erudite as
The Name of the Rose (the original novel, at least), but the Medieval historical conspiracy underpinning it all will definitely appeal to fans of Umberto Eco and Arturo Perez-Reverte. It also shrewdly depicts the competing powers of the Medieval Church and state, with Wakenstede and his allies caught in the middle.

Marten Metsaviir does not look very Medieval, but he instills Wakenstede with a lot of charisma and smarts. He also develops some nice chemistry with Maarja Johanna Magi, as Keterlyn Kordt (a.k.a. Gerke), which hopefully will deepen over the next two films. Yes, all three were shot back-to-back during the pandemic—a gamble that paid off, considering the first two have already done huge box office in the Baltic Republics.

There are a lot of colorful and craggy looking supporting players. The ancient locations, like St. Catherine’s Monastery and the Old Town Square, add a lot of authenticity. Arguably, it all should have been dirtier and muckier, but as viewers, most of us can live with a bit of sanitizing, for our benefit.

All the suspense and deception are quite entertaining, which is the important point. Based on how much fun the first film is, lets hope all three films get released soon as a package deal in the U.S., like the original
Department Q trilogy. Highly recommended for fans of The Name of the Rose and Cadfael, Melchior the Apothecary screens again Wednesday (1/11) and Friday (1/13) as part of this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival.