After last year’s Mr Jones, prolific Polish director Agnieszka Holland returns to the screen with another biographic film; for as outlandish as it may seem, the story of the ‘Oracle of Urine’ is very much based on real events. Charlatan (Šarlatán) is a fascinating portrait of Jan Mikolášek (Ivan Trojan), a man who was able to diagnose medical conditions relying solely on his patients’ urine.

Young Mikolášek (ingeniously cast with Trojan’s son Josef) finds his calling for herbalism and healing after the gruesome events of World War I, pursuing apprenticeship in his field in opposition to his father’s wishes. In time, his extraordinary skills garner him a reputation that brings hundreds of supplicants to his door, hoping to receive the medicine necessary to heal their ailments. In the late 1950s, however, a change of the Czechoslovakian government means Mikolášek is no longer favoured by the totalitarian regime. Indeed, his situation grows precarious to the point of his arrest. As he awaits his trial, his life’s narrative unfolds in flashbacks.

Time is fractured in Charlatan, and cinematographer Martin Strba effectively relies on colours and aesthetics to keep the narrative strands apart. The dire present is depicted in desaturated steely greys, while scenes of Mikolášek’s past are often drenched in bright light. Balancing war and persecution with a gentle homosexual romance between Mikolášek and his assistant František Palko (Juraj Loj), the film achieves an expert equilibrium. 

Despite the turbulent events of Mikolášek’s life, Holland and screenwriter Marek Epstein have produced a remarkably calm film. This approach, however, may be too smooth in this instance, glossing over some of the more rocky aspects of Mikolášek’s personal history.

While unquestionably a competent biopic, Charlatan could stand a more radical approach in its portrayal of Jan Mikolášek, expanding particularly on the political context behind his incarceration.



CAST: Ivan Trojan, Josef Trojan, Juraj Loj, Jaroslava Pokorná

DIRECTOR: Agnieszka Holland

WRITER: Marek Epstein

SYNOPSIS: The breathtaking story of a man gifted with exceptional abilities set against the background of the events of the totalitarian fifties.