Charlatan is the third Agnieszka Holland movie to be released in the U.S. in the past year, and I feel like she’s been my special discovery. Although Holland is one of Poland’s most prominent directors, and has worked extensively in American film and television, I had no awareness of her until last summer, when I watched Mr. Jones, an absorbing biopic/thriller about Gareth Jones, the Scottish journalist who first reported the Soviet famine to the West. Then, a couple of months ago, I screened Spoor, an adaptation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead, and I loved it for its scrappy cast of characters and environmental themes. Holland has a knack for finding good stories, both from real life and fiction, and Charlatan is no exception, as it focuses on the healing talents of a botanical expert who can diagnose people by examining their urine. Yep, that’s pee in the jar above. There’s a lot of uroscopy in this odd biopic about real-life Czech herbalist Jan Mikolášek, who was something of a celebrity in his time.
The film starts at the end of Mikolášek’s career, when he was prosecuted by the Czech government in a bogus lawsuit against him. Throughout his career, Mikolášek was hounded by police visits and government inspectors who viewed him as more of a con artist than a healer. Prior to his arrest, Mikolášek survived tumultuous years of war and unrest, usually by healing people in power. When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, he treated high-ranking Nazi officials. Afterwards, when he was prosecuted for collaborating with Nazis, he continued to practice herbal medicine in prison camp, and his skills were eventually recognized by Communist elites, who freed and protected him. Charlatan dramatizes many of these incidents in flashback, and also shows Mikolášek’s training as a young man. As a child of gardeners, Mikolášek grew up learning about plants, but his skills in uroscopy came from a village grandma who showed taught him how to diagnose with just one small urine sample. Holland cast father and son (Ivan and Josef Trojan) to play the elder and younger Mikolášek, and their strong physical resemblance give the flashback scenes an eerie realism, as if we are getting glimpses into long-lost prewar Czechoslovakia.
Although there was a lot that I found interesting in Mikolášek’s life story, the present-day timeline never really found its dramatic arc. There was a subplot involving Mikolášek’s secret romance with his male assistant, František Palko, but it wasn’t well integrated into the main storyline, even as the screenplay attempted to combine all the plot elements into a final courtroom scene. The movie also faltered as it tried to depict Mikolášek’s relationship to his Catholic faith. Although Mikolášek believed in his powers of diagnosis and his herbal treatments, he also believed that faith was an important part of healing. There are scenes of him prostrating himself before a crucifix installed in his backyard, but I wasn’t sure how much religion actually factored into his practice. At least some of Mikolášek’s success seemed related to his ability to reassure people, as well as his refusal to treat people who had no hope of recovering. At times, the film seemed to suggest that there was a magical element to his healing, a true gift from above; other times, Mikolášek’s ruthless instincts were emphasized. His complexities were compelling, but in the end they felt like they added up to a story of survival rather than a nuanced portrait of a gifted and perhaps tormented individual.