Charlatan, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, derives from the Italian word chatter, and is specifically used under the context of a person falsely claiming to have special knowledge or skill of a specific trade. At the start of Agnieszka Holland’s latest feature, we follow the medical proceedings of Jan Mikolášek, a man who is now known today as a celebrated healer and medical saviour of thousands of civilians. The film begins with an antagonistic approach, where Mikolášek’ prescriptions appear to be the work of medical malpractice. For western viewers at the very least, we interpret his actions as the work of a conman. The beauty of Holland’s Charlatan comes directly through the disorienting and multifaceted directions it takes. As the film progresses, we see more evolving sides of Mikolášek’ life story, and how his work resulted in both his success and eventual downfall. Even at the very end, Holland makes it clear that he is both the hero and villain of his own story.
Charlatan is an incredibly unique exercise in perspective; a rare feat that isn’t often found in the biopic sub-genre. Mikolášek is a deceitful subject, where Holland makes it clear that there is always a motive for everything and that nothing is one-sided. A story about both the worst and best qualities of humanity, the fragmented structure of fleeting regret and memories results in some vigorously entertaining drama. Whilst the repetitive structure does slow the film’s pace and creates an aura of conventionality to the incredibly unconventional narrative, Charlatan ultimately demonstrates that you can still examine a subject of a real-life being, without entirely endorsing or antagonising the person at hand. A man of miracles or a sadist in practice? It’s all up for you to decide.
Charlatan screened at this year’s 56th Chicago International Film Festival as part of the Masters and Women In Cinema programs.