Only last year at Berlin, Agnieszka Holland presented Mr Jones: a big, brashly ambitious movie inspired by the life of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who proclaimed the truth about Stalin’s terror-famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s, when the liberal west had been content to overlook it.
Mr Jones has just been released in the UK and Holland’s work-rate is clearly prodigious, because she returns with another big period picture from Europe’s painful heart, torn apart by totalitarian ideology, this one scripted by Czech screenwriter Marek Epstein. It is intriguing, if a little frustrating: the lightly fictionalised story of Jan Mikolášek, the Czech herbalist and faith healer who became a cult figure in the 1930s. He treated rich and poor alike, accepting powerful Germans as his patients during the Nazi occupation and then communist officials after the war.
His most famous client was the Czechoslovak president Antonín Zápotocký, but after the latter’s death in 1957, Mikolášek was put on trial by the communist government who had long feared and resented what they saw as a charlatanism, existing outside state medicine and owing nothing to communist ideology. Or was it that his charlatanism was more popular and successful than theirs? As Mikolášek is questioned in his cell about career, his life unfolds in flashback. He is played with fiercely controlled stoicism by the veteran Czech actor Ivan Trojan, whose son Josef plays the young Mikolášek.
Was Mikolášek a “charlatan”? Rightly or wrongly, the movie is vehement that he was not. The drama in no way resides in any lingering ambiguity. This Mikolášek is a man of principle and intuitive genius who presides over a flourishing practice. People (mainly poor people: the movie doesn’t show him in the less saintly context of treating the rich and powerful, except at gunpoint) queue for hours outside his mansion with their urine samples in clear bottles. Merely by gazing into this fluid, Mikolášek can apparently come up with miraculously detailed and effective diagnoses, and sometimes gives Vitamin D-deficient patients money out of his own pocket so they can go to the seaside for some restorative sunshine, curtly shrugging off their sobbing thanks.
Holland and Epstein give Mikolášek some vulnerability and complexity by imagining for him a secret gay life with his assistant Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj), a fictional gesture based on longstanding conjecture that grew from the failure of Mikolášek’s marriage and the fact that his assistant lived with him.
This is a forceful, capable movie with an interesting story to tell but its potency consists in a handful of gripping episodes, the most startling being when the young Mikolášek has developed a love of herbs and a vocation for healing, and is in anguish about the fact that his sister is being threatened with having her gangrenous leg amputated. The night before the hideous operation, he sneaks into her room without permission and smears a herbal concoction of his own over the blackened flesh. A director such as Spielberg would have wrung every last drop out of that scene but Holland is more austere. There are many other “miracle” scenes, which are watchable and satisfying, and the movie posits an intense, guilt-wracked Catholicism for Mikolášek, who lives with anguish due to his sexuality.
The dark side of Mikolášek is less satisfyingly evoked. As a kid, he is told to drown a sackful of kittens because this would be the kindest way to do it – but instead he bashes the sack against a rock. Because of frustration? A streak of violence? It’s not entirely clear. In adult life, he is controlling and jealous about his assistant, resenting the man’s wife, and uses his skills in an unforgivable way. But much later, there is a Judas-type betrayal, which appears to hint at some weakness and culpability on Mikolášek’s part, and this does not quite gel with the how we had been encouraged to view him. Charlatan is a film that does not quite satisfy the curiosity it arouses.
• Charlatan is released on 7 May on digital platforms.