Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Agnieszka Holland’s Charlatan plays through SIFF’s streaming service, linked here.
The Polish filmmaker (but by this point, I suppose, citizen of the world) Agnieszka Holland has directed some excellent films, a few bad ones, and quite a bit of television (episodes of The Wire and House of Cards, among other things). Even with near-hopeless material, she brings a level of rigor to her work that is gratifying to behold, which is what you might expect from someone who studied film in Prague in the 1960s. That rigor means that the passions in Holland’s films—and there is a lot of drama in these stories—are frequently throttled, contained within Holland’s formal directing style and the constricting systems her movies so often take place within.
This works for Charlatan, which is not one of her best films, but not a dud, either. The story is a fictionalized account of a real person, Jan Mikolasek, a Czech natural healer (“I’m not a doctor,” he snaps at least a half-dozen times). Mikolasek, who used herbal remedies as well as some kind of second sight to diagnose his patients, is played by Ivan Trojan; in youthful flashbacks he’s played by the actor’s impressively focused son, Josef Trojan. The healer survived two world wars and rumors about his sexuality, but finally ran afoul of the postwar Communist leaders in Czechoslovakia who tired of his independence (and his brazenly capitalistic income).
This scenario might have had various colorings, but the movie leans on three major tactics. 1) Flashbacks fill in Mikolasek’s background, and the traumas presumably meant to explain his fussy nature. This does not work so well. 2) It very gradually emerges that Mikolasek maintains a romantic (is that the right word here? Maybe not) relationship with his longtime assistant, energetically played by Juraj Loj. This is a little more intriguing. 3) Holland has the character remain opaque, despite the stabs at explaining him, to the point where the final reels are almost excruciating in their depiction of a man who will not yield to our expectations of redemption or enlightenment. This is interesting.
Charlatan is beautifully made, even when the screenplay reaches for something clumsy. Holland weaves in a couple of visual schemes that make the film distinctive. (No, I won’t number these.) The movie, shot by Martin Strba, is riddled with barred windows, rippled glass, and columns and metal mesh—strictures everywhere, reflecting the various cribbed spaces that Mikolasek’s journey through the 20th century leads him into. The other element—which takes a little getting used to—has to do with Mikolasek’s practice of examining his patients’ urine samples through clear glass bottles. (He can pee-diagnose a clogged artery or gallstone like nobody’s business.) Not only does this allow Holland to bathe her protagonist’s face in golden light, as he holds his bottles to the sun, but she also goes in for close-ups of the samples, and perhaps the cinema’s first overlap-dissolves involving urine. This resembles the wacky yellow swirl of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, and has a similar evocative/comical effect. The 72-year-old director is still up for new things.
July 23, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.