Strand Releasing
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Writers: Marek Epstein, Martin Sulc, Jaroslav Sedlácek
Cast: Ivan Trojan, Josef Trojan, Juraj Loj, Jaroslava Pokorná, Jirí Cerný, Miroslav Hanus, Ladislav Kolár
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/25/21
Opens: July 23, 2021

More than sixty percent of Americans take supplements, whether they be vitamins, minerals, or herbs. These additions to people’s diets are unregulated by the FDA, amid lobbying by the industry to keep government out of our bodies. The argument continues to rage whether herbs do any good, or whether they shorten people’s lives because some refuse medical treatment until it’s too late. Here’s a similar argument that has been raging, one probably more so by the people of the Czech Republic and Slovakia than here in the U.S. Have you heard of Jan Mikolasek? Do you know why his profession has people debating to this day? The Czechs today would be flattered if you get to know him, and this picture is a good way to do that, one even more interesting than the well-researched tomes as in Wikipedia.

“Charlatan” is a biopic by Agnieszka Holland, who was born in Warsaw but studied film in Czechoslovakia and whose “Washington Square (l997) is an adaptation of the Henry James novel set in 19th-century New York City. Among all her films, that might be the best known by Americans, about a wealthy spinster with an overbearing father who is pursued by a handsome fortune hunter. Now with “Charlatan,” a Czech-Irish-Polish-Slovak look at a man who acquired great wealth and is looking more for a male sexual partner than undeserved money, Holland gives the title character a fair shake until the concluding scenes.

The question that Holland takes up and which viewers of the film keep in the backs of their minds throughout: was Jan Mikolásek (Ivan Trojan), played in flashback to his younger self by Josef Trojan, a charlatan? That is, does he pull the wool over people’s eyes, convincing them to partake of cures for their ailments simply to lighten their wallets? Or, does he actually believe in everything he is doing and is really curing people? You will go away from this movie convinced of the latter. His motto could be: belief is half the cure, plants are the remaining cure. How does director Holland make us believe this? The best test is that when the Nazis overrun Czechoslovakia in the late thirties, they make Mikolásek take a test that would awe people in the health sector. He is given 29 samples of urine and has to guess the ailment of each donor. And he does so to the satisfaction of his examiners! Yes: he can tell people’s ailments by putting clear bottles of their specimens up to a strong light, shaking each donation around like an oenophile on a glass of Chardonnay, and declaring: kidney; liver; diabetes; and what-have-you.

Holland takes us from his young manhood when he becomes like an intern to herbalist Mrs. Muolbacherova (Jaroslava Pokorna), whose hair-trigger personality is matched by Mikolásek’s. Later when political sponsor and client Antonin Zapotocky dies, Mikolásek is thrown victim to Stalinist authorities, harassed by them in similar ways to his victimhood at the hands of the Gestapo. (If you paid attention in high-school history, you’ll know that Czechoslovakia had the unfortunate experience of conquest by Nazi Germany, later to fall into the occupation of the Soviet Union.)

Considerable time is spent on Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj), a poorly educated laborer who is hired as Mikolásek’s assistant simply because the young man offers complete loyalty. Their homosexual affair is not appreciated by the authorities and may have led them to look upon the herbalist with increased hostility. Near the conclusion, when both men are on trial, accused of poisoning an official with tea laced with strychnine, Mikolásek offers the court a defense that seems at first beyond belief, but then makes sense when you realize that despite the way he had honestly earned a living, acquiring a fancy car and villa but donating considerable sums to cash-strapped patients, he has a lust for living at all costs.

The film is blessed by Ivan Trojan’s shattering performance in the title role, an actor with an impressive résumé of TV movies and episodes, and Czech-centered films like “Bullet for Heydrich.” Like many artful European pictures, there is little music on the soundtrack to compete with dialogue, though there is occasional use of Dvorak compositions; and who could oppose that?

In Czech with English subtitles.

118 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – A-

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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