This is an unusual story even if it is a form of biopic. It follows on from Agnieszka Holland’s previous film Mr. Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine 2019) in featuring one man’s story in Eastern Europe, but this time with a longer time span from 1916 to 1958. This was a festival film that I went into with absolutely no idea what it was about. I also didn’t notice the directorial credit and didn’t realise it was a film by Agnieszka Holland. Sometimes it’s good to have a completely blank canvas on which the narrative unfolds. This narrative begins with the dying moments of Czech President Antonín Zápotocký in 1957. This is followed by a seemingly unconnected scene with a long queue of people outside a large mansion. They are all carrying what seem to be sample bottles, each filled with their own urine. Inside the house the central character in the film, Jan Mikolásek, a man in his sixties, examines each sample simply by swirling it in the closed bottle and observing it against a bright light. His diagnosis is almost immediate and he is invariably correct as to the patient’s ailment. He then brusquely declares a prescription which is registered by his assistant and Mikolásek dispenses it (most are standard preparations). He charges relatively little and nothing at all if the patient has no money. He never lies and may tell a patient that their condition needs a surgeon or that their illness is terminal. He repeatedly tells his patients that he isn’t a doctor. Mikolásek was a real herbalist who lived from 1889 to 1973. The film appears to stick fairly closely to the real story with some fictional episodes and additions/omissions and it ends in 1958. A brief biography of the real Mikolásekcan be found here.
The film’s structure follows a familiar pattern of incidents ‘now’ (in 1957-8) and a series of lengthy flashbacks which gradually reveal how Mikolásek came to be the man we see in the 1950s. In 1916 he’s fighting reluctantly for the Austro-Hungarian army against the Russians and later he will have to contend with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and then the communist government of the new Republic after 1948. In the 1920s he learns about diagnosis and because he was brought up as a gardener’s son he develops herbal remedies quickly. He is principled but prickly and although married spends most of his time with his assistant Frantisek Palko. In the 1950s he receives warnings that he is being watched by communist party agents, but because he has always treated leading officials and VIPs with success he assumes he is untouchable. He treated the Nazi leaders in Czechoslovakia, possibly under duress and faced some problems at the end of the war. His problem is that as well as being unqualified to offer what might be defined as medical services, he is also a Christian who believes that faith has a role to play in any healing process. The communist ideology of atheism and science is fundamentally opposed to his practice.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot and there are several important elements I have left out. I found the the story very interesting and I was reminded of various stories and films about Czechoslovakia during both World Wars and into the communist period. Whether this story and in particular its central character will hold the interest of mainstream audiences over nearly two hours is another question. Mikolásek is played by Ivan Trojan with his younger self played by the actor’s son Josef Trojan. The other major role is that of Frantisek played by Juraj Loj. All three performances are very good. I have seen suggestions by one reviewer that audiences will not warm to Mikolásek because of his coldness and rudeness but it seems to me that he has a complex personality that always intrigues. He seems to me a familiar figure with a certain amount of charisma and authority that both demands acquiescence from patients and also engenders anger. I have no idea if he was a charlatan or not, but the evidence suggests that his diagnoses were generally accurate. He is, however, drawn to Frantisek as a sexual partner and has little compunction about ruining his own marriage as well as Frantisek’s. The gay element in the narrative is fictionalised I think. One act in particular is shocking in its cruelty.
I’ve suggested that this is a form of biopic which misses out parts of the central character’s life. We first see him when his fictional version is a frightened young soldier in the Great War (the ‘real’ Mikolásek would have been in his late twenties). We are asked to infer the events of his childhood, just as we are asked to accept that he got married. The only role for his relatives is if they need treatment. It’s almost a surprise when they reappear at the end of the film.
Agnieszka Holland is now classed as a veteran filmmaker who has been directing since the 1970s (she trained in Prague rather than Poland) and has considerable experience of serial television, including working recently in the US. She keeps the narrative moving at a fair lick and I was engaged with the events throughout. The cinematography by Martin Strba and art direction and production design by Jiri Karasek and Milan Bycek are very good but it did seem that the changes in colour palette between the dark and grey 1950s and the sunny 1920s/30s were exaggerated. Overall, I think that this film could find an audience in the UK. The film has been acquired by AX1 (formerly Axiom) for the UK.
The trailer below gives away more plot points than this blog post so don’t watch it if you want to avoid further spoilers. The trailer is 16:9 but the cinema print is 2.35:1.
This is a startling film for a number of reasons. Most obvious is the nature of the representations of sexual intercourse, which are the most explicit I’ve seen. Compared to In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no korîda, Japan, 1976) and The Idiots (Idioterne, Denmark-Spain-Sweden-France-Netherlands-Italy, 1998), for example, both of which feature hardcore sex, this film raises the bar for arthouse explicitness. The film even trumps Gaspar Noé’s provocations (at least the ones I’ve seen such as Love) as this is indisputably a pornographic film. Director Albertina Carri (she also co-wrote with Analía Couceyro) does use the narrative as a frame for moving on to the next sex scene. I can’t remember where I read that pornography is like the musical: in the latter the narrative moves us on to the next ‘song and dance’ number; in the former it is for the ‘moan and grope’ sequences. However the film is also more than porn.
Carri, whose short film Barbie Can also Be Sad (Barbie también puede estar triste, Argentina, 2002) is reputably also worth a watch, has made a meta-porn movie using arthouse techniques to comment on and question what we are seeing. This is primarily through the voiceover of one of the two characters who embark on a road trip (to stop one of their mothers selling a car!) where they pick up other women along the way. Inés Duacastella’s cinematography beautifully captures the austere landscapes of Patagonia; I’m not sure but I think they are headed south toward Tierra del Fuego, the end of the world (continent) which is named after fire. Road movies usually lead characters to learn about themselves, but this bunch are already full of knowledge about their sexuality and apparently need little more. In this sense, the spaces they move through are utopian; there are no psychological impediments to their lasciviousness. They are challenging patriarchy and have little problem dispensing with the two homophobic misogynists they come across: a utopian space indeed!
Carri’s crew was apparently virtually all female and although I found the film intensely erotic I (heterosexual male) am not the target audience. I suspect many will find the graphic sex scenes too much to view but the film is clearly more than porn (listen to the interesting discussion between academics José Arroyo and Deborah Shaw). (I’m trying to avoid ‘protesting too much’ so it seems I’m justifying watching porn).
There are moments of great beauty in the film. The hallucinogenic sequence when the characters take mushrooms, where imagery of sea life is superimposed on the image, is particularly stunning. Whilst not going the whole Godardian hog of alienating the spectator from the film with the voiceover, Carri does enough to get us thinking about what we are seeing. The final, long take, of a woman masturbating reminded of the scene in Godard’s British Sounds (UK 1970) where a naked woman stands on a stairway with a Marxist-Leninist tract on the soundtrack (as I remember it at least). The content of the shot is such that the viewer is interrogated as much as the image.
The film’s showing on MUBI for a while and is available on at least one pornographic website, an interesting platform for an arthouse movie.
The title of this documentary in English is something like ‘Together and Blended’, but the official English title is Side by side, eye to eye, which doesn’t seem to mean quite the same. The second part refers to ‘El Mejunje’, a cultural centre/club based in a former hotel donated to the community by the Cuban government. The club offers children’s shows, rock concerts and other forms of light entertainment and it is also a meeting place for the local LGBTQ community in Santa Clara, a city of 250,000 people in Central Cuba.
Spanish director Nicolás Muñoz Avia has produced a 66 minute account of the club and its members divided into nine sections or ‘ingredients’ as the English subs call them. These refer in different ways to ideas about self-worth, relationships and community, expressed through titles like ‘self-love’, ‘mother’s love’, ‘lovesick’ etc. We are introduced to a range of characters, each of whom we see in observational mode with friends and family, but also as ‘witnesses’ to the activity of the club, speaking directly to camera. Finally, we get to see some of these characters performing in the clubs walled courtyard (see above). In addition, there are several more formal interviews with people who give us deeper background on the club. The image quality of the film is good. The soundtrack is a little rougher at times, but perfectly serviceable.
The various club members/visitors include a local trans performer who is the first officially elected local government representative of the community, a rock band and a dance band of older players, a couple of schoolgirls, an older lesbian couple and a local man who is an alcoholic and who relies on the club and community to look out for him. This latter episode involves ‘tough love’ by the club who ban the man for a week and urge him to clean up his act (club members have already cleaned out his room for him). There is another family group with some ‘issues’ about a feckless young man but on the whole this is not an exposé or a sensationalist reality TV type of documentary. Instead it is a relatively conventional doc about a cultural centre that gives potentially marginalised groups a social space. What was most striking for me was to see a portrait of Cuba without either tourists or the set agenda of many reports that always seem ready to criticise or undermine (this is especially true of some reports on the BBC and in the supposedly left-leaning Guardian newspaper). The documentary here stresses the official sanction/donation of the building and several of the organisers profess their solid support for the revolution, perhaps over-emphasising this when a performance takes place in front of the national flag and portraits of Fidel and Che (which don’t appear on other clips of the club on YouTube). On the other hand, when a revolutionary speech plays on the PA during a performance, the younger members of the audience look bemused or indifferent. It’s telling too that a young guy in a rock band tells us that he’s just spent all his money to keep his amp working. “What else can we do?” he says, “We just want to play our music”.
It’s good that this portrait of Cuban life doesn’t come to us from Havana (though the opening images do – the film starts on the Malecon) because it gives us a different sense of Cuban society. With recent visits by the Pope and Barack Obama, the question of Cuba’s future comes ever more into the spotlight, so I hope this film gets more outings in Europe and North America as well as Latin America. This was its official UK première – another first for ¡Viva!
Useful trailer (but no English subs):