Kornél Mundruczó is not one to shy away from a little magical realism mixed with allegorical content. In Johanna, the film that is perhaps closest to his latest work, Jupiter’s Moon, he had a nurse heal hospital patients by having sex with them, a tad Mary Magdalenaic perhaps. In his new film, he is going for straight Messianism.
Set against the European refugee crisis, after a title card that already sends all subtlety out the window, the film starts on the Hungarian border, the tightly closed doorway to Europe. In scenes reminiscent of another Hungarian Cannes entry from a few years ago, Son of Saul, we closely follow a young refugee, Aryan, and his father as they clandestinely try to cross the border. Given the subject matter, the similarities with Nemes’ masterpiece take on a deeper meaning, as we see hordes of people driven off in buses and herded together in ill-equipped refugee camps, a handheld camera roving around in constant close proximity to Aryan and the man he meets, and who will soon change the course of his life: a Hungarian doctor named Stern. Any refugee situation attracts leeches looking to make a quick profit, unfortunately, and Stern is no different. As much a hustler as he is a doctor, he is assigned the young Aryan, who was shot during the botched crossing attempt. The shooting has triggered something special in Aryan though: he can levitate. As soon as Stern witnesses this, he realizes the potential to make a buck out of it, and so these two are ushered into an unlikely partnership.
The parallels between Aryan and Jesus Christ, both left for dead, and both seemingly having the ability to move to higher spheres all by themselves, are easily drawn. And the protagonist’s name seems to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to Hitler’s master race, while still fitting for a refugee from Syria (the name derives from the old Sanskrit), laying bare the abusive relationship Europe has had with the Middle East, both historically and more recently. Hungary’s stubborn refusal to take in any refugees and its horrid treatment of the ones that have landed on its border permeate the film, not unexpected perhaps from a filmmaker from a country that was in good league with Nazi Germany during much of World War II.
So, symbolism abounds throughout the film, but unfortunately it fails to connect to the plot, which is far more banal than the possibilities this backdrop has to offer. As Aryan and Stern travel around Budapest, Stern has his young prodigy show off his abilities to rich, sick people as some sort of souped-up parlor trick, while they are being hunted by the police officer who shot Aryan on the border. It’s mostly Stern’s film, and the overall arc is about him shedding his cynicism and finding something unexplainable to believe in again, but the screenplay fails to fully drive it home.
And that is a shame, because Jupiter’s Moon is certainly a piece of virtuoso, pure cinema when it needs to be. The scenes of Aryan levitating leave you wonderstruck, and Mundruczó also serves up a car chase late in the film that is done in one continuous take, and it will leave you nailed to your seat. Having a history in theater and opera, the director shows his affinity for the dramatic by scoring these scenes with a decent amount of bombast, but their almost religious transcendence fits the approach. It’s here that the film soars (no pun intended), but unfortunately it does not convincingly connect these moments to an overall idea, leaving behind a half-baked product that doesn’t rise above the average.