Agnieszka Holland's portrait of a 20th century faith healer is insightful and beautifully shot, though let down by glacial pacing
Having previously tackled the Holodomor in Mr Jones, the Holocaust in In Darkness, and the dying days of Beethoven in Copying Beethoven, Agnieszka Holland returns to historical Europe with Charlatan, this time tackling a less immediately familiar tale, making for an intermittently compelling but often stodgy history lesson.
Charlatan follows the life of Jan Mikolasek (played by father-son duo Ivan and Josef Trojan as an old and young man, respectively), a Czech herbalist and faith healer who found fame in the ‘30s before going on to treat both Nazi and Soviet leaders during and after World War II. Holland moves back and forth through the decades, introducing us to Mikolasek as he’s getting in trouble with the communist authorities following the death of the Czechoslovak president whilst in his care, flashing back often to other pivotal moments of his life and career.
Though a lot of these flashbacks are excellent – a harrowing reminiscence of World War I is a highlight, as is the electrifying first meeting between Mikolasek and his assistant and secret lover Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj) – the framing device they’re contained within is not. After an effectively distressing raid by the police on Mikolasek’s hospital, he’s subjected to a long pre-trial interrogation process, which becomes boring very quickly. Conversations with his lawyer drift along endlessly, dragging you away from the story’s most interesting and powerful moments.
Things really pick up whenever we leave the confines of Mikolasek’s jail cell, though there is still quite a bit of offputtingly nasty stuff to wade through – you may not feel the payoff is worth watching a bag of kittens get smashed against a rock or constant close-ups of sickly, particulate-filled urine. The birth and growth of Mikolasek’s messiah complex is handled exceptionally well, making him a frustrating, untrustworthy figure without losing our sympathies. Holland isn’t interested in the moral ambiguities of his methods – the idea that he might have just been a con artist is dismissed by his constant medical success throughout the film – but does dive deep into his fundamental flaws as a man.
Trojan gives a solid, stoic performance, and plays off Loj particularly well, creating a tense romantic chemistry that humanises an otherwise quite distant character, though Charlatan often keeps you at arm’s length, shutting you out of the deeper emotions of the story even as it invites you in with gorgeous cinematography.
Holland conjures up some incredible shots here, from a night-time cityscape that almost looks like a stage set to glowing summer afternoons that warm you through the screen, and Charlatan remains a feast for the eyes even when the pace slows to a crawl. This is a biopic that provides fascinating insights into a largely forgotten piece of folk history, though it's just as likely to frustrate as it is to entertain or inform.
Charlatan is now streaming on various digital services.Where to watch