It’s often been asserted that the inhabitants of cities seldom look up. Maybe when there’s a suicide under negotiation, or a high-wire-walker, or when something ominous splats on your shoulder, but if there were a man slowly rotating eight floors up in the middle of a busy street, how long would it be before anyone on the ground noticed? And, having noticed, would their thoughts immediately turn to miracles and angels?
Perhaps, if they were Kornél Mundruczó, who finds God — and many other intriguing metaphysical possibilities — in his central, striking image of Syrian refugee Aryan (Zsombor Jéger) hovering high above the streets and rooftops of Budapest. Too many, really: the attempt to explore them all simultaneously sends the sometimes stunning, often beguiling and always visually inventive “Jupiter’s Moon” tumbling to earth. This serious-minded, ambitious oddity shoots for the moon of a far-off planet, but it really only finds the grace it’s looking for in its magnificent supple camerawork.
Its problem is one of thematic greediness. “Jupiter’s Moon” wants to take on the immigrant crisis, the Western world’s loss of religious faith, miracles, redemption, terrorism, sacrifice, guilt and modern urban alienation. It is a thriller, a chase movie, a Christian allegory, a family fable about ersatz fathers embracing their frightened would-be sons and a visceral social-issues drama detailing the Hungarian state’s heavy-handed and inhumane response to the refugee crisis. Its title adds yet more to the pile: In the crisp non-explanation that opens the film, we’re told it pertains to the moon Europa, considered by scientists to be among the likeliest prospects in our solar system for a new life-supporting home. But science and space exploration place a very distant second to the questions of faith and religion that are Mundruczó’s main concern.
In a powerhouse opening that immediately acquaints us with Marcell Rév’s extraordinary close-quarters handheld camerawork, we are introduced to Aryan, standing near his father, sweating in a van stuffed with people and crying children and chickens. How depressing that this crisis should already have evolved its own aesthetic, but this opening section is to migrant issues as “Saving Private Ryan” is to World War II. The truck lurches to a halt and they spill out into the night and onto the boats that will take them to Europe. Aryan and his father are separated in the melee, just before a border patrol catches the troupe, and callously opens fire.
There is swimming, shouting, terror, last-gasp messages and then a pounding race through a forest that ends when craggy-faced cop Laszlo (György Cserhalmi) shoots Aryan three times in the chest. Instead of decently expiring, Aryan literally rises from the dead, tumbling gently end-over-end above the forest, before gravity kicks in again. From there, he finds his way to a refugee camp where a corrupt disgraced doctor, Stern (Merab Ninidze), witnesses his levitation act and, while suspecting it to be divine in some way, first identifies it as a talent to be exploited for money. Stern seems to believe that the sick and the dying, plenty of whom he knows, will pay good forints for a glimpse of this “angel” performing his gravity-defying miracle.
It’s narratively — or rather, visually — self-serving, this power of Aryan’s: Sometimes it’s just him, his blood and his shoelaces floating up into the air; sometimes items in the room move with him, and sometimes, to particularly spectacular, “Inception”-like effect, he can impossibly change the gravity of a whole apartment, sending its occupant sliding in terror across the walls and ceilings of the cartwheeling living room. Each time, the camera twirls as Aryan rotates and the world keeps on turning. Is it any wonder that “Jupiter’s Moon” ends up so punch-drunk and dizzy?
Aryan is young and scared and alone, but other than that, and his newfound superpower, he remains a cipher, the better for him to serve the tug-of-war whims of Kata Wéber’s brimful screenplay. In a story of the migrant as martyr and mutant and man-shaped miracle, there is no room for him to be a character, though the saturnine Jéger makes good use of his banked-down charisma. Really it is Stern who is most changed by the events of the film, and aside from some rather distracting dubbing (all the characters’ lines appear to have been looped), Ninidze brings a solid commitment to his character’s humbling. Early on he snaps at a recovering patient “Don’t thank God, thank me,” but by the film’s close it seems he has regained some measure of faith and humility.
Despite its overabundance of abstract topics, the film has nothing concrete that it truly wants to say. And so there’s a kind of cognitive dissonance between the propulsive, often brilliant, genre-inflected filmmaking (as well as the flying sequences, and the rotating room, there’s an extraordinary long-take car chase through the streets of Budapest) and the fuzzy uncertainty of the film’s thesis. Jed Kurzel’s muscular and elegant score does a great deal to keep the tone somber, even when the literal flights of fancy could become too featherweight, but there’s only so much even the most inspired craftsmanship can do with a story this diffuse.
Mundruczó’s fabulous Un Certain Regard winner “White God” was a far more singleminded and satisfying film. But the similarities are striking, if you simply substitute “White God’s” mistreated and rebellious dog for a Christlike young migrant from Homs. The difference here — the theological riddle Mundruczó sets and never solves — concerns what the superpowered, gentle-natured, unfairly hounded Aryan is here to do. Perhaps he’s come to save us, perhaps to condemn us or perhaps simply to live the ultimate refugee dream and finally, truly escape, by ascending to the stratosphere, away from humankind’s savagery, venality and corruption.