Stars: Ivan Trojan, Josef Trojan, Juraj Loj, Jaroslava Pokorná.
Like her previous picture ‘Mr Jones’, which profiled the Welsh journalist who unearthed the truth about the Stalin regime, Polish director Holland’s latest is another study of the conflicted soul of Europe via a complex real-life protagonist.
Jan Mikolášek (Ivan Trojan) was a famous Czech healer with seemingly supernatural intuitive powers. The time-shifting structure shows how, as a humble and troubled farm Jan (played ingeniously in his younger incarnation by the lead actor’s son Josef) is able to persuade a local herbalist (Pokorná), who could deliver detailed diagnoses by studying a bottle of her patient’s urine, to let him be her apprentice.
Mikolášek builds up a huge following with queues regularly forming outside of his practice. His celebrity becomes such that he treats the Czech president. Controversially he also treats Nazis, including Martin Bormann, during the wartime occupation, something he is punished for by the Communists when they take over.
While Mikolášek is undiscerning in his treatment, willing to give his time to the poor despite his elevated status, and capable of great acts of kindness, he remains aloof and emotionally distant. Only with his handsome assistant František (Loj), in a relationship invented by the filmmakers, is he able to express any affection.
The script takes Mikolášek’s extraordinary powers at face value, even when they’re at their most uncanny, such as the sequence where young Jan’s intuition and intervention helps prevents his sister having to undergo extreme surgery. But despite Trojan’s compelling performance, Mikolášek remains ultimately unknowable meaning a courtroom climax doesn’t quite carry the emotional weight it might have.
Cinematographer Martin Strba’s conveys a keen sense of the differing periods, from the sunbathed idyll of the pre-war years to the drab and dour utilitarianism of the communist era, but the picture is overlong and sluggishly-paced.
Charlatan is available to stream from 7th May
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