The life of controversial Czech folk healer Jan Mikolášek is recounted in Agnieszka Holland’s excellent Charlatan, which tells you about the man but – quite unusually, especially for 2020 – doesn’t tell you what to think about him. This refreshingly complex, morally ambiguous biopic is the Czech Republic’s official submission for the 2021 Academy Awards.
Mikolášek was not a trained doctor but instead a beloved “healer” who diagnosed his patients almost purely, as Charlatan recounts his story, through bottles of urine brought to him during each appointment. He treated them through homeopathic methods using plant-based medicine, as well as recommending diet and other changes.
The easy way of framing Mikolášek’s story, as the title suggests, is painting him as a huckster fraud: neither science nor the medical profession, then or now, has his back. But in Charlatan, Mikolášek clearly believes in his methods, and so do his patients. They clearly seem to have benefits, even if no more so than a placebo effect.
But director Holland doesn’t take the easy path. Her portrait of Mikolášek is one of complex ambiguity that wavers between admiration and condemnation, and nicely parallels the character’s personal story. In scenes largely invented by screenwriter Marek Epstein, Mikolášek is portrayed in a secretive long-term relationship with his male assistant.
Ivan Trojan stars as Mikolášek, and quite wonderfully captures the dual nature of the character: smart and assertive but entirely dispassionate, he inspires trust but not empathy. That might not sit well with some viewers, but nicely captures Charlatan‘s ambiguous nature.
Mikolášek is portrayed as so popular that he has to turn away dozens of people who line up for his treatment every day. Side hustles are set up to sell potential patients the glass jars they need to provide urine samples.
After the annexation of Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s, Mikolášek was even able to convince Nazi doctors of his methods. His later patients included Antonín Zápotocký, president of Czechoslovakia in the 1950s.
But when Zápotocký died, Mikolášek lost his biggest supporter. Later communist officials didn’t care whether he was a charlatan or not, and when two of his patients were allegedly poisoned they charged him with murder (the murder plot was invented for the film, but the real Mikolášek was convicted of other crimes in a show trial and imprisoned for five years, after which he never returned to his profession).
Polish actor Juraj Loj plays Frantisek Palko, Mikolášek’s long-time assistant and lover in the film, who brings some fleeting happiness to the often-gloomy proceedings. He, too, is charged alongside the healer; in the film’s devastating final scenes, we come to realize that regardless of Mikolášek’s medical attributes (or lack thereof), the title of Charlatan is unfortunately apt.
In flashbacks, Trojan’s son Josef plays the young Mikolášek; he was inspired to become a healer after saving his sister’s leg, which doctors insisted needed to be amputated, with herbal remedies.
Polish director Holland studied at Prague’s FAMU during the Czech New Wave in the late 1960s before directing acclaimed films (The Secret Garden, Europa Europa) and TV series (episodes of The Wire and House of Cards, among many others) across Europe and the United States. Charlatan represents her first fully Czech-language feature film; she also made the Jan Palach miniseries Burning Bush for HBO in 2016.
Charlatan also represents one of Holland’s most accomplished films, and tells a complex story with unexpected subtlety and nuance. The film’s morally ambiguous nature won’t satisfy all viewers, but the richly detailed presentation of Mikolášek, and Trojan’s commanding performance, make Charlatan a fascinating and memorable experience.