STAND BACK FROM Agnieszka Holland’s film Charlatan, loosely based on the life of herbalist Jan Mikolášek (1889-1973) and the grand impression that it leaves sits like lead on your chest. Not that this is a bad – or inaccurate – thing. This intense portrait of, in large part, Communist rule in 1950s Eastern Europe feels like a Kafkaesque voyage in time and it is characterised by a mostly continuously muted palette and the kind of music repertoire that feels as though it is echoing off prison walls from the inside. It will be available online and without cost, as part of the 8th European Film Festival South Africa, which runs from 14 until 24 October 2021. Bookings open on 13 October.
But it is in this tale that we learn about the life of a very curious historical figure. The son of a gardener, Mikolášek was endowed with the gift of healing by touch. He also had a healthy dollop of scepticism for conventional medical practice and a rich vortex of devil-may-care fire in his belly. In a work that veers across time periods and into the depth of world redefining wars, we learn about Mikolášek’s dreams and experiences, the penances he does and the haters he faces. We learn of his penchant for the dangerous and a streak of violence in his personality which could fly in the face of his credibility. But we also learn of his immense compassion and his eagerness to give voice to a very rare gift.
As a young man, Mikolášek meets a local “witch doctor”, Mühlbacherová (beautifully played by Jaroslava Pokorná). It’s a prickly connection, based on the potency of the young man’s gift and the power of the elderly woman to give. He learns the skill of reading urine which, like other ancient and somewhat pooh-poohed diagnostic tools of the ilk of iridology and reflexology, fit into a holistic understanding of healing that is not invasive. They’re practices which, some believe, tend to teeter on the brink of reading omens with the entrails of sacrificial animals or understanding personalities by measuring the bumps on people’s heads. So we get a rich concatenation of values which is as much about dinkum homoeopathy as it is about witchcraft and the whole gamut of accusations that lurks in its historical tail. Toss in some Nazi realities, a smidgeon of homosexuality and Stalinist hardliners, and you’re in for a complicated, intense film.
It offers a glimpse into herbal cures that might evoke for you a moment in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1986 film The Name of the Rose, based on Umberto Eco’s eponymous novel, where the apothecary monk, Severinus (Elya Baskin) explains the principle of the homoeopathic dose: a small amount heals; a large amount kills. It’s a principle that is overlooked in the harsh accusations which find our ‘herbalist’ facing the highest penalties in a trial where he feels mouthless.
And while there are moments of sheer magic and cinematographic inspiration, the film does feel much longer than its close to two-hour duration. It takes a while for you to understand the time lapses invoked by different characters and it slams the horror of a Stalinist jail into your equilibrium which makes you deeply unhappy. Ivan Trojan takes the moral torsion of being in the world faced by Mikolášek and lends it both a face of immense vulnerability and searing fire. It becomes an essay about loyalty and the passage of time as much as it is one which sheds light into the beliefs, cultures and fears of the common man or woman.
Charlatan is directed by Agnieszka Holland and features a cast headed by Joachim Paul Assböck, Éva Bandor, Igor Bares, Frantisek Beles, Magdaléna Borová, Otmar Brancuzský, Filip Brouk, Jan Budar, Jirí Cerný, Natálie Drabiscáková, Marek Epstein, Miroslav Hanus, Adam Hrdy, Tomás Jerábek, Ladislav Kolár, Václav Kopta, Jana Kvantiková, Juraj Loj, Miloslav Marsálek, Barbora Milotová, Martin Mysicka, Jan Novotný, Jana Olhová, Jaroslava Pokorná, Milena Sajdkova, Philipp Schenker, Bernhard Schütz, Martin Sitta, Pavlína Storková, Matej Sumbera, Pavel Svaton, Frantisek Trojan, Ivan Trojan, Josef Trojan, Claudia Vaseková, Lenka Veliká, Jan Vlasák, Daniela Vorácková and Melika Yildiz . Written by Marek Epstein based on an idea by Martin Sulc and Jaroslav Sedlácek, it is produced by Sarka Cimbalova and Kevan Van Thompson and features creative input by Antoni Lazarkiewicz (music), Martin Strba (cinematography), Pavel Hrdlicka (editing), Milan Býcek (production design) and Katarina Bielikova (costumes). In German, Slovak and Czech with English subtitles, it is part of the 8th European Film Festival South Africa, screening online and without cost from 14-24 October 2021. Bookings open on 13 October.