Dir Agnieszka Holland | Wri: Mark Epstein | Cast: Ivan Trojan, Juraj Loj, Josef Trojan | Drama Czech, Irish, 118′
A talented self-taught Czech herbal physician fights discrimination during the totalitarian 1950s in this lushly inspired drama that also tells a convincing gay awakening story.
Agnieszka Holland really finds her groove in this fascinating film about Jan Mikolasek (1889-1973) a mercurial master of alternative medicine who treated a wide range of illustrious patients including Nazi Martin Bormann and leader Antonin Zapotocky, but eventually fell from grace when homosexuality was still a crime. The film opens during the political turmoil of 1957 that sees the 70-year-old Mikolasek suffering under the draconian cosh of the post-Stalinist era when the death of his ally Zapotocky ushers in president Antonin Novotny.
Czech actor Ivan Trojan gives a mesmerising performance as the maverick medic in this elegantly realised period piece that makes appealing use of its picturesque settings in the verdant Czech countryside. Award-winning scripter Mark Epstein admits to playing fast and loose with the sketchy historical facts in giving life to this slightly mysterious man who railed against the febrile Eastern European political system despite his outwardly pucker credentials and dapper demeanour.
Mikolasek grew up with an interest in plants and their medicinal properties, and we meet him as a young man (played by the main actor’s feisty 18-year old son Josef Trojan) who learns to read bottled urine samples by holding them up against the light. The young Mikolasek is prone to violent outbursts at one point threatening his father with an axe and then bashing a bag of newborn kittens against a tree instead of drowning them. In flashback we see him as a young soldier traumatised by his orders to execute a comrade. All this serves the main story well and is seamlessly interwoven into the narrative.
The doctor’s arcane abilities to cure the sick were endorsed by a long line of locals who queued for hours to received a diagnosis of their ills. And soon his successful practice allows him to move into more luxurious surroundings in a countryside manor which also serves as his clinic. He hires an assistant in the shape of Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj) who lacks training and experience but desperately needs a job to support his growing family and is prepared to offer his undivided time and loyalty.
The men develop a bond that extends beyond the professional and these scenes feel convincingly natural, their sexual tension ramped up by the illicit nature of an affair that culminates in a heart-stopping finale.
Scored by Dvorak and other Czech composers, Holland’s accomplished filmmaking is showcased in this illuminating work that sheds light on a little known episode of the nation’s history. The past and present comes together gracefully, delineated by the entrancing camerawork of DoP Martin Strba that contrasts sun-filled outdoor scenes with stylishly subdued interiors and black-and-white archive footage of the Communist era offering a really enjoyable experience. MT
NOW ON PREMIER DIGITAL PLATFORM AX1 from 7 MAY 2021. Berlinale FILM FESTIVAL premiere 2020