Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 19, 2021 7:39 pm 
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AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: CHARLATAN (2020) - San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 2021 (July 22 - Aug. 1)


Natural healing and gay romancing

The 72-year-old Agnieszka Holland has been busy lately with Spoor (2017) and Mr Jones[/I] (2019) and now Charlatan (2020), about Jan Mikolášek (Ivan Trojan), the real life healer and herbalist who performed diagnoses by looking at flasks of urine. Am I alone in thinking she may be turning a little bit kooky herself? My favorites of her films remain Olivier Olivier, Europa Europa and The Secret Garden, from the early 1990's, plus Total Eclipse (1995) for the 20-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio's uniquely balls-out performance as Arthur Rimbaud. (Grégoire Colin was 16 when he starred in Olivier, Olivier.)

Charlatan is solid, old-fashioned filmmaking, a biopic of a real person with fictional embellishments. The nice cinematography switches back and forth between drab for the present and colorful for the past or for when things are going well for Mikolášek, whom we see fielding crowds of mostly poor patients (but :"I am not a doctor," he repeatedly says). The present time turns dark for him following the death of Czech Communist president Antonín Zápotocký in 1957 - whom Mikolášek had cured and who therefore protected him. He had had plenty of rich and powerful cures in his heyday, but exposés and attacks went on and at the coming of the new regime, finding Mikolášek an offense to modern enlightened communism or a threat to state medical authority, authorities arrest him and seek the death penalty. The charge is that he has caused several important people to take tea with strychnine and die. He would not have done that - in this movie he never does anything wrong as a healer, though in other ways plenty. Overlapping the present narrative sequence is a sequence of flashbacks to his youth. Young Mikolášek is nicely played by veteran actor Ivan Trojan's 18-year-old son Josep, who has the right looks and a pale, thin authority.

As we just saw with Mr. Jones and have seen before, Holland knows how to make a handsome-looking, atmospheric historical movie and this is fun to watch - except it doesn't all quite gel. Once the aging Mikolášek is arrested and held in prison, his goose appears to be cooked, so where's the suspense? The best parts seem to be the first, pristine ones with the pale, gifted Mikolášek learning from a peasant healer woman (Jaroslava Pokorná) and outdoing her, then as a full-fledged rich and famous pro doing the same thing only much more so and for money. We're asked to believe it's really possible accurately to diagnose specific diseases by looking at urine in the light, spotting gout, kidney ailments, heart trouble, gall bladder from color, viscosity, and little things floating around. Mikolášek seems to nail it every time and diagnoses one of four herbal compounds he has made up. Even the Nazi occupiers, with some convincing, swear by him.

Young Mikolášek is good and bad. When they want to cut off half his sister's leg because she has gangrene, he sneaks in and heals it overnight with an herbal poultice. Then when the old lady gives him a bag of kittens to drown "so they don't suffer" he dispatches them in a more violent manner she doesn't like - nor do we. There are hints of violence in his nature but they're not coherently integrated into the narrative.

A significant curlicue added to the story is a gay romance between youngish Mikolášek (a slightly awkward transition because Trojan senior has taken over at this point) and his new assistant, Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj), a well muscled but poorly educated man he takes on anyway because there's an instant attraction. This is an invention by the writers based on Mikolášek's brief and unsuccessful marriage and his living with the assistant and implies the relationship lasts through the rest of Mikolášek's career. Palko has a wife at whom Mikolášek judiciously scowls. This gets complicated and fills out some lively but perhaps unnecessary flashback footage toward the end, with exteriors very nicely shot by dp Martin Strba and clasically edited by Pavel Hrdlicka. It feels as if the writers, Marek Epstein, Martin Sulc, and Jaroslav Sedlácek create a conflict in order to resolve it, but I didn't mind terribly because I so much admired the rhythmic editing of the final courtroom stairway sequence. But the Czech version of Wikipedia shows the film's final trial segment is sheer fabrication.

Charlatan, 118 mins., debuted at the Berlinale (Feb. 2020), Holland's third film to do so in recent years. It also featured at Pyeongchang, Transylvania, Odesa, Sofia, Moscow, Kyiv, Mill Valley and at least eight other international festivals in 2021, including Frameline (San Francisco). Screened for this review as part of the San Franciso Jewish Film Festival (Jul. 22-Aug. 1, 2021). Holland receives the SFJFF's 2021 Freedom of Expression award.

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