As the world’s biggest fan of Peter Watkins’s twisted and superb “Edvard Munch,” I harbor a soft spot for filmmakers who muss up the perfectly coifed looks and reassuring habits of biographical films. The great writer-director Agnieszka Holland — a connoisseur of those deemed “difficult” by society — does not disappoint with “Charlatan,” her fictionalized story of the persecuted Czech herbalist Jan Mikolasek.
Mikolasek rose to prominence and prosperity in the 1930s and 1940s by treating patients with natural remedies, scrutinizing their urine for signs of illness. “Charlatan” jumps between Mikolasek’s rise and fall: his apprenticeship as a youth (Josef Trojan) who has an uncanny “I see sick people” gift; and his professional practice as an adult (Ivan Trojan), as lines of patients out the door were eventually replaced by suspicious state security agents.
Mikolasek’s fall out of favor after World War II is not hard to figure since this stubborn individualist stuck out for several reasons. Holland tracks his failures to finesse the postwar turnovers in power — though he did find a way with the Nazis — and his unorthodox approach and ample wealth don’t sit well with postwar apparatchiks. But in these conservative times (which persist) he was also singled out for his loving relationship with his handsome assistant, Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj).
Their warm but unequal romance fuels the second half of the movie, after we’ve seen plenty of scenes of inspired healing and urine swirling. Their clandestine love brings some bucolic light and energy to a movie that often mucks about in Mikolasek’s dim, gray clinic. But Holland also keeps spiking the film with doses of the healer’s coldness, which can be shockingly cruel.
When Frantisek says his wife is pregnant, Mikolasek offers him an abortive poison to give her. There is also — fair warning — a scene of Mikolasek disposing of a sack of kittens by thrashing them against a rock. The moment is frankly baffling in its brutality, even if it’s interpreted as demonstrating another kind of barbarity in past eras, or as early evidence of Mikolasek’s dark side.
Both Trojans’ performance — the actors are father and son — are steadfast in resisting a sense of heroism, villainy, or, really, charisma, and Josef Trojan suggested to me a credible vision of old-fashioned formality as it might actually have felt to be around. A great-man outsider who falls hard, Mikolasek makes for an intriguing counterpoint to the female protagonist of “Spoor,” the fierce, funny, and mysterious film co-directed by Holland and Kasia Adamik.
Often as thorny as its subject but also oddly fascinated by his near-magical abilities, “Charlatan” is a temporary cure for the common biopic.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour and 58 minutes. In theaters.
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