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In 2005, Johanna, a musical, hospital-set update of the story of Joan of Arc, premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes. Its director: Hungarian maverick and iconoclast Kornel Mundruczo. We’re now a dozen years on and not only will Bruno Dumont finally offer a French take on a Joan of Arc musical (in this year’s Directors’ Fortnight) but Mundruczo is back with another religious parable, again in garish, almost sickly colors and also partially set at a hospital — though thankfully, there’s no opera singing involved this time around.
Jupiter’s Moon (Jupiter holdja), as the director’s latest is called, is the story of a Syrian refugee who discovers he can levitate after he’s been shot while trying to cross the border into Hungary. This offers the starting point of an incredibly ambitious but also, at times, uneven work that combines realistic ingredients from the underbelly of today’s world with elements that can be described as religious, supernatural, fantastic, superhero-like or maybe even all of the above.
Like the few supporting characters in the story that get to witness the protagonist take flight in what are sure to be some of this year’s most stunningly filmed images, the audience will have to take a leap of faith to stick with this literally unbelievable story from start to finish. One thing is for sure: Jupiter’s Moon impresses as a cinematic object — and as story, it will leave no one cold either way.
Aryan (Hungarian theater actor Zsombor Jeger), a broodingly handsome man from Homs in his mid-twenties, tries to pass into Hungary over water with his elderly father. But when their group is discovered by the Hungarian border police, their boat is overturned, they are separated under water and Aryan then tries to get to shore and sprint away through fields and a forest. All this is shown in the first of the film’s many stunning sequence shots, courtesy of 32-year-old cinematographic wunderkind Marcell Rev, who also shot Mundruczo’s equally striking White God from a few years ago, another parable.
But up until that moment, Jupiter’s Moon remains within the realm of — certainly spectacularly filmed — realism. It isn’t until Aryan is gunned down by a man we’ll later learn is called Laszlo (veteran actor Gyorgy Cserhalmi) that the narrative takes its first unexpected turn, with Aryan not dying but some of his blood suddenly starting to flow skywards, followed by the stunned Aryan himself.
The most logical explanation that Gabor Stern (Georgian actor Merab Ninidze, badly dubbed into Hungarian and English), an overworked, guilt-wracked doctor at an overflowing refugee camp, can come up with is that Aryan might be an angel. Or perhaps that’s just the excuse he needs to steal away Aryan when Stern’s fired by his boss — who turns out to be Laszlo, who wants him to shut up about the shooting incident — and then show off Aryan to some very ill inhabitants of Budapest who could use a reassuring vision of Heaven — of course, against a hefty payment. Cue one eye-catching scene after another as the refugee, who needs the money to continue looking for his father, flies against the backdrop of a dome of a Turkish bath or a gigantic crystal chandelier in a fancy home or, in one particularly moving image, slowly pirouettes while hovering upside down over a child looking up at him in a hospital.
The film was written by White God’s co-author Kata Weber, an actress-turned-screenwriter who debuted in Mundruczo’s first film, Pleasant Days. The biggest weakness of her screenplay is that its connecting tissue and overall narrative arc aren’t as thorough as its setpieces are creative and beautifully conceived. This results in a film with some real stunning visual highlights but a narrative throughline that feels patchy and unbalanced. The relationship between Stern and Aryan, for example, (spoilers ahead) is meant to redeem Stern if only he could act morally instead of only thinking about money, his reputation and his job. But the doctor, who is heavily indebted because of past errors, and his perhaps celestial new friend have only two brief heart-to-heart conversations that deepen their bond and the audience’s understanding of Stern’s supposed journey. Amidst all the literally high-flying scenes, these two moments aren’t enough and they end up feeling more perfunctory than part of a larger, organic whole.
Like White God, the film also wants to suggest something about the socio-realistic complexities of contemporary Hungarian society and some of the country’s right-wing political discourse, with the refugee crisis the most obvious point of entry. But here Mundruczo’s messages are muddled. The main story is about one particular refugee, the son of a carpenter (!) from Homs, who could possibly be a redeeming angel. But then there’s that pesky third-act subplot that suggests that refugees could also be lethally dangerous. It is here that the story’s message becomes confusing and it stops functioning as a parable, religious or otherwise, because parables need a clear moral truth or lesson that can then be applied to the messy complexities of real life.
Ninidze believably incarnates a man at the end of his tether who gradually warms to the idea that being a morally upright person might have its own rewards, even if it doesn’t immediately bring any benefits in the money- and status-obsessed world we live in today. Opposite him, Zsombor Jeger has the supremely difficult task of incarnating a being that is never quite explained, with his acting offering a beguiling mix of physical grace in the airborne sequences and otherworldly bafflement at the goings-on around him back on earth.
Besides the stunning cinematography, top technical contributions include the immersive soundscape as well as a pounding score by Jed Kurzel (Alien: Covenant) that more than ups the tension whenever required. The effects work is also confidently handled, with Mundruczo and Rev sometimes even opting for rather straightforward and minimalist effects, such as when a camera pans down past a high-rise and all we see of Aryan is a black shadow floating down from window to window until, at the end of the shot, his feet and his silhouette meet on the ground.
It’s a shame, then, that this timely and impressively conceived story isn’t capable of always earning the required suspension of disbelief to make it really fly.
Production companies: Proton Cinema Production, Match Factory Productions, KNM, ZDF, Arte, Chimney
Cast: Merab Ninidze, Zsombor Jeger, Gyorgy Cserhalmi, Moni Balsai, Andras Balint, Farid Larbi, Mate Meszaros, Szabolcs Bede-Fazekas, Lajos Valazsik, Peter Haumann, Zsolt Nagy
Director: Kornel Mundruczo
Screenplay: Kata Weber
Producers: Viktoria Petranyi, Viola Fugen, Michael Weber, Michel Merkt
Director of photography: Marcell Rev
Production designer: Marton Agh
Costume designer: Sabine Greunig
Editor: David Jancso
Music: Jed Kurzel
Sales: The Match Factory
In Hungarian, English, Arabic
No rating, 123 minutes
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