Review: 'Charlatan' Diagnosis the Problem with Blind Faith

by Roger Walker-Dack

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday June 19, 2021

'Charlatan'  (Source:Strand Releasing)

"Charlatan" is Agnieszka Holland's biographical tale of a Czech herbal expert who makes a living diagnosing patients by their urine samples, which means it may not be to everyone's taste. However, barely submerged within it is a commentary on the suffocating totalitarian regime under which the story unfolds, making it a pointed statement that questionable practices supported by blind faith are not all that rare. And it' has just enough layers to make this dour story something to ponder.

Jan Mikolasek (with Ivan and Josef Trojan as the young and old Jan) dedicates his life to studying medicinal herbs after saving his sister's leg from amputation with a plant-based poultice. Believing that he can predict people's deaths, he begs an older healer to let him become her apprentice. That singular commitment over time brings him notoriety and a line of patients outside his surgery. He continues to practice on both the poor and the influential, despite being castigated in the press for his unusual methods.

Throughout his career Jan is assisted by Frantisek Palto (Juraj Loj), whose piercing eyes eventually become irresistible to Jan. After an intense and violent consummation of their mutual interest, they embark on a long-term love affair that has to dodge both the authorities and Frantisek's wife.

The movie travels at a crawling pace, peppered with brief and explosive violence. Jan lives under both the Third Reich and then, later, communism. The air of oppression lends a weariness to all of the characters, threatening to make them snap under its weight at any moment. Color is leached from the visuals except when he is alone with his lover in nature. Those glaringly bright moments bring a brief release into beauty and hope.

The film keeps open the question of who the charlatan is. Jan shows commitment to his craft at every stage. He appears to have faith in his own methods. The satisfaction of certainty is never awarded to the audience, and therefore this long film still seems to end before it should.

"Charlatan" screens at Frameline June 24

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.