Starring: Ivan Trojan, Joraj Loj, Josef Trojan, Jaroslava Pokorná
Director: Agnieszka Holland
There’s something wonderful about European biopics about figures that the Anglo-centric world knows little or nothing about. With so many famous names and faces slipping beneath our radar because of our obsession with only our English-speaking neighbours, it’s a genuinely enlightening experience when a good biographical drama finds release that can genuinely educate us about a slice of history of which we know nothing at all. And I genuinely knew nothing about Czech herbal healer Jan Mikolášek whatsoever!
Jan (Ivan Trojan) is a famed healer who has developed a highly effective form of urinary diagnosis, with which he can pretty accurately determine his patients’ ailments and diagnose them with his own herbal remedies. He relies heavily on his assistant František (Loj), with whom he is involved romantically, even though the hunky younger man still sends his wage to support his wife. In flashback we see how the younger Jan (played by the lead’s own son, Josef Trojan) learns his craft from the village healer (Pokorná) but also develops a sadistic side, which begins to manifest in his dealings with patients, the authorities and his relationship.
Essentially behaving like a faith healer, Jan Mikolášek treated the rich and poor alike, including Nazi officials during World War Two and Communist officials afterwards. He curried favour with Czech President Antonín Zápotocký, but was famously dragged through a fantastical show-trial by the new regime after their leader’s death in 1957, claiming he was a fraud, a charlatan and a murderer. All of this is depicted in this striking film from Oscar-nominated Polish director Agnieszka Holland, but underpinning it all is Jan’s relationship with František, which toes the line between love and disdain, loyalty and betrayal.
The pair constantly remind each other that their relationship is illegal and they subsequently can’t function like a normal couple. But Jan seems incapable – or unwilling – to treat his lover as his equal, while František is quite content to revere him as his master. As a result, we are left with an uneven power dynamic, in which the physically stronger servant is beholden to his more mentally astute benefactor. And this dark dynamic is complimented by flashes of Jan’s sadism, in which compassion is secondary to his need to succeed. And while this romance becomes the bedrock of the film, with its final scene a real emotional gut-punch, the historical evidence of Jan’s homosexuality is flimsy at best.
The film is insistent that, despite its title, its subject was decidedly not a charlatan. It is hugely critical of the Communist regime, who insist on destroying him because his popularity could not exist counterpoint to theirs. But in simplifying all his treatments to four herbal remedies, there’s definitely a question mark over how accomplished he actually was. The film attempts to paint Jan as a genius Messianic figure, but his violent streak and manipulative nature undermine that at times.
Clearly, Holland is attempting to create a rounded portrayal of a controversial figure, but her hero-worship of him doesn’t always sit well with her attempts to show his dark side. But despite all of this, Charlatan is a fascinating and well-executed biopic that gives a local icon an international audience. And for that, this should definitely be lauded.
UK Release: 7th May 2021 On Demand, released by AX1 Films.