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by Jay Seaver

"An intriguing story cut short, as happens."
3 stars

There were a lot of stories like the one depicted in "Charlatan" happening during its 1950s Eastern European setting, and by now audiences have seen a lot of movies or read a lot of books about those tragedies, which presents the filmmakers with a tricky problem: How does one make a movie that both examines a man who is such a singular character and considers the one-size-fits-all machine that will inevitably destroy him? It's not an issue that the filmmakers necessarily must resolve - that history is under no obligation to provide a thematically satisfying resolution is part of its lesson - but it does make me wonder if maybe this should have been two movies, rather than one.

The film starts with the end already in sight; no sooner has Czechoslovakia's President Zápotocky died than the papers are starting to run stories attacking Jan Mikolásek (Ivan Trojan), mocking the "Oracle of Urine" whose clinic in Jenštejn is busy and apparently very effective. Mikolásek is not a doctor but an herbalist with an encyclopedic knowledge of plants' healing properties and an uncanny ability to diagnose someone's health issues by examining their urine - and though he has long been protected by patrons at every level from local officials on up to Zápotocky, his personal wealth, unorthodox methods, and long-term relationship with assistant Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj) do not fit well in the conformist and communist nation, and the system may now finally be able to purge itself of him.

Jan Mikolásek emerges as an intriguing figure before the downfall story that frames the movie in large part because Ivan Trojan - and son Josef, who plays Jan during the flashbacks to his earlier life - capture the drive and arrogance of this sort of savior so well. The script by Marek Epstein occasionally ascribes almost supernatural abilities to Mikolásek, but though belief is an important part of his character, it doesn't make him close to perfectly selfless. His compulsion to heal is almost impossible to extract from his fascination with the means, and the elder Trojan has a particularly nice knack for finding the spot where Mikolásek's sense of entitlement is well below cartoonish villainy, instead the sort of thing that may or may not rub one the wrong way should they just meet him in passing without the rest of the story. He's an intriguing contrast to the mentor (Jaroslava Pokorná) who takes little pleasure from her good work, and there are interesting scenes where his knowledge of his limitations seems more unnerving than the ones where similar characters promise the moon.

That's half the film; on the other side, Mikol├ísek's belief that he is untouchable is important but the main thrust is how his fall comes not necessarily from his own hubris but from a stubborn form of progress that has no room for variation. Director Agnieszka Holland and the other filmmakers don't noticeably distinguish between the Nazis and the Communists, visually, though there is a bit of a grainy faux-film look to some of the earliest flashbacks, and there's never any invocation of particular ideology in justifying the government coming for Mikol├ísek; he's just different and his methods seem unscientific, and the system is better built for crushing that than accommodating it. The story with Jir├ş Cern├Ż as Mikol├ísek's lawyer discovering the truth is built out of the same pieces as a thriller but plays out as futile.

The film pointedly doesn't check in with Frantisek much after the police raid Mikolásek's clinic, an odd choice considering that he often seems to be the point-of-view character in the scenes between his arrival and their arrest, and he's often making personal choices that eat at him in a way that the more self-certain Mikolásek often doesn't. Holland and her crew are too strong for the film to ever feel disjointed, so that even the stylistic flourishes that stand out (such as the bright yellow dandelions in the middle of the slate-gray prison that dominates that portion of the movie) always feel tied together. Parts of the film feel blunted, like the split focus prevents the filmmakers from digging deep into any one particular facet of the story.

It's at times unsatisfying, but there's a certain sort of truth to that; many lives were upended in this way, one at a time but in relentless, standardized fashion. Mikolásek's life story gets derailed and cut off, and while that leaves a movie at loose ends, it does give the feel of just how arbitrarily and efficiently an authoritarian system can snuff things out, and this movie does so without stopping to underline how that's the point of the exercise.

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originally posted: 03/29/21 06:47:32
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  N/A (MA)

Directed by
  Agnieszka Holland

Written by
  Marek Epstein

  Ivan Trojan
  Josef Trojan
  Juraj Loj
  Jaroslava Pokornß
  JirÝ Cernř

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