Agnieszka Holland’s “Charlatan,” the Czech Republic’s official entry in the International Feature Film category of the 93rd Academy Awards, has been acquired for distribution in the U.K. and Ireland by AX1 from international sales agency Films Boutique. Variety spoke to the Oscar nominated filmmaker – who was recently elected president of the European Film Academy – about the project, challenges facing independent cinema, and the fall of President Donald Trump.
“Charlatan,” which premiered in the Berlinale Special Gala section of the Berlin Film Festival, and received a best director nomination at the European Film Awards, is based on the true story of Czech healer Jan Mikolášek, who dedicated his life to treating the sick using medicinal plants. Throughout the turmoil of the 20th century, he has to choose between his calling and his conscience.
Speaking to Variety, Holland noted that the same flaw that led to Mikolášek’s downfall – hubris – can also be seen in Trump’s decline, adding that both suffer from varying degrees of narcissism. When she watched the attack on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., by Trump’s supporters she had not been surprised, given his attempts to goad them on. Despite the deadly nature of the attack, she observed that there was a certain comic aspect to the rioters, who reminded her of bemused tourists, taking selfies. It could have been a scene from the next “Borat” movie, she said. She recalled that when she was shooting episodes of “House of Cards” during the last U.S. presidential election it was hard to match the bizarre reality of U.S. politics, which had become even more outlandish than the fiction in the series.
Reflecting on the pandemic, Holland said that the coronavirus crisis was a reminder for mankind to be more in tune with nature and to respect it, as Mikolášek had done. The film also served to reinforce the importance of doctors and science, and the need to take a holistic and humanistic approach when treating illness.
Holland is now looking to develop a project based on life during the pandemic, she said. A series about Napoleon that she had been developing has been put on hold due to its high budget and difficulties in raising the financing. “In the current circumstances I don’t think it will be realistic. It will be difficult to find the money for an ambitious historical miniseries right now,” she said.
Another high-level project, which would have been shot in Paris for one of the streaming giants, had also stalled, she said, adding that it had proved difficult to communicate effectively with the various partners virtually.
Reflecting on the challenges facing independent cinema, Holland said that producing high-quality films was the best route to survival for the sector. “My approach is that you have to make really good movies. If you want cinema to survive, you cannot go with some kind of mix of laziness and mediocrity,” she said. “It has to be really good, courageous, surprising, and maybe important too.” She said that the audience response to “Charlatan” and her previous film, “Mr. Jones,” showed there was a demand for complex stories, even if the films were considered “dark”.
Holland’s films include “Angry Harvest” (1985), which was nominated for an Academy Award for a film in a foreign language; “Europa Europa” (1990), which won a Golden Globe, and earned a second Oscar nomination, this time for original screenplay; and “In Darkness” (2011), which was Oscar nominated for foreign-language film.
In 1993, Holland made the first of many films in the U.S. with “The Secret Garden,” produced by Francis Ford Coppola. Holland has also directed many episodes of U.S. TV series such as “The Wire,” “The Killing,” “House of Cards” and “The First.”
Her previous two feature films, “Pokot” (2017) and “Mr. Jones” (2019), were both selected for the Berlinale competition.
In “Charlatan,” Ivan Trojan plays Mikolášek, with Josef Trojan playing Mikolášek when he was a young man. Other cast include Juraj Loj, Jaroslava Pokorná, Jiří Černý and Miroslav Hanuš.
Marek Epstein wrote the screenplay, and Martin Strba was the cinematographer. The film was produced by Šárka Cimbalová and Kevan Van Thompson for Marlene Film Production. The co-producers were Mike Downey, Sam Taylor, Klaudia Śmieja-Rostworowska and Lívia Filusová.
Previously announced territory sales include North America (Strand Releasing), France (KMBO), Spain (Vercine), Italy (Movies Inspired), Australia (Vendetta Films), Israel (Lev Cinema), Turkey (Filmarti), BeNeLux (Cinemien Film Distribution) Germany, Austria and German-speaking Switzerland (Pro-Fun Media Film Distribution), Latin America (Great Movies), Baltics (Best Film), Bulgaria (Art Fest), Ex-Yugoslavia (MCF Megacom), Hungary (Mozinet), Iceland (Bio Paradis), Portugal (Leopardo) and Korea (NK Contents). The Czech distributor is CinemArt, and Gutek Film in Poland.
The U.K. deal was concluded this week by Films Boutique’s Julien Razafindranaly, Irish producer Film and Music Entertainment’s CEO and European Film Academy chairman Mike Downey and AX1, as the film goes into the final stages of selection for the Academy Awards.
“Agnieszka Holland’s ‘Charlatan,’ since its launch in official selection at the Berlinale, has been making waves around the world at a time when the cinematic experience has been greatly diminished,” Downey said. “Its massive 250,000 box office in the Czech Republic alone, as well as Holland’s best director nomination at the European Film Awards, and repping Czech Republic at the Academy Awards, bears witness to this. We’re happy to be doing business with AX1 again, after our joint success on Peter Greenaway’s last movie, and look forward to working together to give ‘Charlatan’ the positioning it deserves in Ireland and the U.K.”
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