Int’l Critics Line: Todd McCarthy On Czech Republic Oscar Entry ‘Charlatan’

Strand Releasing

Charlatan” seems too harshly definitive a term to apply to the fascinating protagonist of the new film with the self-same title, given that the Middle European physician titularly accused of medical deception successfully plied a busy career treating eager patients across more than three decades under three vastly different political regimes. The venerable veteran director Agnieszka Holland has made a tasty, if not fully-baked, biographical drama about an obstinate man whose life was as difficult as he was. Czech Republic’s entry in this year’s Best International Feature Oscar sweepstakes world premiered at Berlin in 2020 and is being handled domestically by Strand Releasing.

A cranky, egotistical, imperious fellow, Jan Mikolasek, was a man who, as presented here, would never allow a cloud of self-doubt to hover over his head, much less puncture his abundant ego. Opening like Citizen Kane, with an old man’s dying breath (albeit without uttering a tantalizing “Rosebud”) and a newsreel recapitulating his career, Marek Epstein’s screenplay at the outset scampers around too much for its own good, creating a measure of confusion rather than a resilient springboard able to catapult the protagonist right into a viewer’s head and imagination.

But amidst all the jumping about, what is clear is that, by the 1920s, young Mikolasek had established a more-than-thriving practice in Bohemia, a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ailing people lined up for hours every morning in the hope of securing an appointment with the doctor who, within minutes, could assess what was ailing them and prescribe a remedy.

Mikolasek (wonderfully played as an older adult by the eminent Czech actor Ivan Trojan, who previously co-starred in Holland’s 2013 miniseries Burning Bush, and as a young fellow by Trojan’s son Josef) does this merely by holding up a sample of the patient’s urine to the light and examining it intently. We see what he sees: Tiny particles floating around in the golden liquid, which itself varies in color and density. Within a few seconds, he barks out a remedy, homeopathic in nature, that seems to do the trick. It even works on his beloved sister, whose badly injured leg is threatened with amputation. The young man has a knack that would seem to border on the magical, even if he never earned a medical degree.

Still, trying to pull the script together into something resembling an obedient shape remains beyond the means of Epstein and Holland, who ping-pong the narrative between two principal periods: The medic’s successful practice through the 1930s, when he acquires a handsome (and predominantly straight) male lover (buoyantly played by Jan Loj), with whom he can momentarily “be himself,” and the 1950s, when the man’s iconoclastic behavior and politics become intolerable to the communist regime, which imprisons him and puts him on trial on trumped-up murder charges.

All the elements of a dramatic and engrossing tale are at hand, and Holland makes sure that every scene is staged for strong dramatic import. But breaking up the continuity, in this instance, tends to muddle its impact and render it distractingly diffuse, thereby reducing its power and clarity; that the doctor was married — albeit unhappily — is treated almost as an afterthought.

Similarly in need of more fleshing out are the man’s inner demons; early on, when asked to drown a sack of unwanted kittens, he instead bangs the bag violently in a terribly cruel and bloody fashion; at moments, he treats his boyfriend almost as nastily. These are just two prominent instances of the script indicating psychological problems without trying to grapple with them at all meaningfully.

Disappointingly, how the man slithered through the Nazi period is not addressed — Mikolasek refused to discriminate among his patients, treating anyone who came to him for treatment, including Nazi bigwigs like Martin Borman, whom he cured of gout. And the same goes for any mention of what his life was like after the communists let him out of jail; Mikolasek actually lived until 1973.

Despite the bluntly accusatory title, the film doesn’t remotely entertain the notion that its subject was a fraud or an imposter. Rather, it takes its cues from the evidence, that a great many people — he is reported to have treated as many as five million patients over the course of his long career — swore by his skills, which predominantly involved “folk medicine” like herbal teas and ointments. That said, the script might have advisedly included more discussion and insight on the nature of the doctor’s practice, where it definitely worked and where there was some room for skepticism. Inquiring minds will be keen to know, as Charlatan definitely stirs the pot with great ingredients even if doesn’t provide a fully satisfactory meal.

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