Most people in the modern era might not have heard the name of Jan Mikolášek, a renowned herbal and faith healer from the former Czechoslovakia; but, people who lives in the western world in early 20th century would have known him for his reputation to have healed over five millions people including high-profile public figures, such as King George VI of England and Czechoslovak presidents, including Antonín Zápotocký, whose demise put trials on the healer’s career. Veteran Polish-Czech director, Agnieszka Holland (resorting to American TV series venture in the recent years, most notably in House of Cards and The First), decides to rekindle the long-forgotten story in a biopic called Charlatan—focusing on Mikolášek’s rise to fame and struggles during the totalitarian era.
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In Charlatan, like in many other stories from Eastern Europe in such an era, people are torn apart by totalitarian regimes that took shape and hold in most of the regions. Mikolášek (portrayed by Ivan Trojan and his son, Josef, as the younger counterpart) comes as a cult figure of solace. He treats sick people and heal them no matter if they are poor or rich, old or young, peasants or important figures. He’s well-known for his unorthodox method—refusing modern medicine and resorting back to the nature. He diagnoses people by examining their urine under strong light. His reputation attracts powerful people that might have made or broken him should anything happen; but, as saintly as he can be, Mikolášek doesn’t refuse patients—be it a Nazi official or communist representations.
His shimmering career, however, eventually hits the wall when Czechoslovak president under his treatment dies. Whether the president’s demise entirely Mikolášek’s fault or of natural cause, the movie never explicitly answers. One certain thing is, the government officials find a strong evidence of malpractice; but, the regime’s negative bias towards the healer’s charlatanism suggests foul plays in the trial. The totalitarian regime does not approve his method that completely refuse state-controlled medicine and venture outside state’s facilities. His miracle is a threat to the integrity of the communist government and, as it should, a totalitarian leaders would not let such a ripple effect to thrive.
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Charlatan portrays the lightly fictionalized Mikolášek with unnecessarily brighter traits. While appearing cold and stoic at most moments, the healer is often saintly portrayed, especially in the way he treats the poor peasants. His intuition comes with precision and there’s no way the movie unravels the methodology that leads to the precision. In the same way, Marek Epstein’s script gives no answer nor the discussion about the protagonist’s charlatanism. The controversies surround him remain the same. Is he a pure genius or a mere fraud? There’s no way to decipher the question but to believe in Mikolášek’s charisma exuded with ice-cold confidence by Trojan (be it the father or the son).
The cult subject that Charlatan reintroduces to modern day viewers is an intriguing personality and Holland makes sure that the subject’s charisma is the one that wins over the audiences. However, this biopic dabbles in more questions and ambiguity that root from legends rather than treating Mikolášek with a deeper insight as an individual.