JUPITER’S MOON: Muddled Messiah Tale Has Its Moments
A frenetic, fantastical but frustrating piece of work, Jupiter's Moon will be remembered not for its rather woolly handling of serious subject matter, but for a couple of excellent performances, and the stunning images and sequences.
Kornél Mundruczó is a Hungarian director of theatre and movies, whose best-known film work – 2014’s White God – saw abused stray dogs rising-up to overthrow their cruel masters in a smart and provocative allegory about the mistreatment of his country’s underclass. It marked out Mundruczó as a director with radical ideas and a real eye for a set-piece. A rummage through his back catalogue only confirmed that notion, particularly 2005’s Johanna, a mini-opera about a drug addict who cures terminally-ill patients at a hospital, not with medicines or therapies, but by having sex with them.
His follow-up to White God, Jupiter’s Moon, has its moments but is rather harder to love. Shot on 35mm and crammed with arresting visual sequences, it’s certainly both an ambitious and beautiful-looking work, but one that, for all its posturing, offers up a rather muddled message.
Aryan (Zsombor Jéger) is part of a group of Syrian refugees attempting to cross the border from Serbia into Hungary. When they are intercepted by police, the boy loses his father and, whilst reaching for identification, is shot three times in the chest by trigger-happy cop László (György Cserhalmi). He dies but is immediately resurrected by an unseen force, blood droplets from his wounds levitating into the air like the dirt on the coffin at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Soon, Aryan is not only alive, but floating high above the forest in which he was gunned down.
He ends up at a chaotic refugee centre outside Budapest, where he comes to the attention of disgraced doctor Gabor Stern (Merab Ninidze), who immediately sees a way of making money out of the boy’s flying abilities. But László (played to stony-faced perfection by Cserhalmi) also discovers Aryan’s super power and a game of cat-and-mouse ensues as the policeman pursues the pair all over the city. This three-way relationship becomes more complicated when a terrorist atrocity is carried out and Aryan is framed for it.
We’re told at the very beginning of Jupiter’s Moon that Jupiter has 67 known moons and one of them, Europa, is “presumed to have a salt water ocean under its icy surface” that could be a “cradle of new life forms”. Mundruczó seems to be suggesting we should embrace rather than fear the unknown or alien – like a desperate foreign populace fleeing conflict perhaps – because it might deliver us something wonderful or beneficial, even the Messiah himself. Alas, there are times when the director rather undermines his own good intentions.
Despite the initial astronomy lesson, science has no part to play here, as Mundruczó soon starts slathering on the religious allusions and symbolism. Sometimes it’s effective (Aryan’s resurrection), but at others it’s clumsy (“What does your father do?”, “He’s a carpenter.”). Stern initially sees Aryan as a cash cow – he needs to raise enough money to pay off the family of a boy he accidentally killed, so they’ll drop a law suit against him – and arranges appointments with terminally ill patients at which Aryan blows their minds by levitating. The idea is that they take him for an angel, and proof of the afterlife, so making their impending demise a little easier to face. To underline the young Syrian’s divine credentials, the director gives a great many scenes here a glowing, golden tint – as if the heavenly host was just out of shot the entire time.
Over the course of Jupiter’s Moon, we discover very little about Aryan, beyond the fact he lived in Homs, likes French fries and, due to his religious convictions, doesn’t touch alcohol. If he is a divine being, the boy is either unaware of it or has nothing to say about it. In terms of drama and storytelling, the fact he is so unknowable is problematic. Jéger – a solid enough screen presence – isn’t given much to work with and therefore appears out of his depth amongst more experienced actors and more interesting characters. Somehow the director has made his Messiah figure a very dull boy.
Mundruczó doesn’t even define Aryan’s abilities. One minute he can fly, the next he’s destroying a neo-Nazi’s grubby apartment using some sort of Carrie-style telekinesis, the latter manifestation of his powers never even remarked upon. Is he gaining new abilities as time passes? Can he do anything? The filmmaker isn’t so much interested in Aryan as in what he represents, but that leaves a void at the centre of the movie where a fully developed character should be. He might be the Messiah but he’s no more than a supporting player here.
The notion of opening your hearts and doors to people fleeing oppression and war is an admirable one, especially with Europe’s refugee crisis never far from the headlines. But Mundruczó rather sabotages one of his main themes by introducing a terrorist sub-plot. A man we see travel with the Syrians into Hungary pays off Stern, so he can be sent from the refugee camp to the city hospital where he easily absconds. The man then carries out a suicide bombing on the Budapest Metro, which Aryan narrowly escapes.
If you’re making a film that at least touches on the need to offer refugees a home in your country, it strikes me as decidedly odd to then say, “Oh yeah, but watch out for all those terrorists who will probably come through the door with them.” It’s like Frank Capra had added a coda to It’s A Wonderful Life in which it is revealed George Bailey is a wife beater. Maybe it’s an attempt at being “even handed”, but Mundruczó feels like he’s contradicting himself.
The director might pose a fascinating question – what if the Messiah was here, right now, fleeing persecution and we turned him away because we saw him as a threat or a drain on our resources – but only half answers it, opting to leave his story open-ended. “You have brought us a message, haven’t you? Did we forget to look up?” Stern asks Aryan at one point. Unfortunately, it’s never made certain what, beyond Aryan floating about in the sky, they are meant to look up at exactly. If the answer is God; which one? The idea that a Syrian Messiah (potentially of the Muslim faith, although that isn’t made explicit) appearing in the air over a predominantly Catholic country’s capital city would be somehow unifying is frankly hilarious.
Worse still, at times, the director risks patronisingly presenting the young Syrian as little more than a white variation of the “magical negro” archetype. He’s the “miraculous migrant”, pure of heart and intent, and ready to show those stoic, old-fashioned Eastern European types a better way. What that better way might entail, however, remains frustratingly vague.
What is clear is that keeping Aryan safe from harm is meant to represent redemption for Stern, a corrupt, self-loathing alcoholic. As if protecting this possibly divine boy somehow makes up for the individual his drunken sloppiness allowed to die. Of course, this might work rather better if the not-so-good doctor hadn’t additionally been at least partly responsible for the 20-odd deaths in the Metro terror attack, but Mundruczó seems happy to let that particular aberration slide.
Eerie and voyeuristic
As White God and its remarkable 200-dog stampede through Budapest’s streets proved, Mundruczó has a way with a set-piece and so it proves here. In fact, even though Jupiter’s Moon has its problems, the film’s ravishing visuals still make it worth two hours of your time. There’s an extraordinary one-take car chase through the streets of the city towards the end, cinematographer Marcell Rév’s camera kept low to the ground to really accentuate the head-spinning speed of the pursuit.
Another scene has Aryan floating down the side of an apartment block at night – we see only his shadow on the wall as he descends past a variety of rooms containing oblivious people going about their business. It’s profoundly eerie and voyeuristic. In fact, Jupiter’s Moon is chock-a-block with similarly seductive scenes and it wouldn’t surprise me if Mundruczó isn’t handed the keys to something rather bigger and more Hollywood-flavoured in the very near future.
Jupiter’s Moon: In conclusion
A frenetic, fantastical but frustrating piece of work, Jupiter’s Moon explores themes Mundruczó has certainly covered better elsewhere (fear of the outsider in 2008’s little-known Delta, miracles and the divine in Johanna). It’ll be remembered not for its rather woolly handling of serious subject matter, but for a couple of excellent performances, and the stunning images and sequences conjured by Mundruczó and Rév. You should probably see it (preferably on a big screen) but don’t expect to love it.
What is your favourite film featuring a messianic figure or religious themes, and why? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
Jupiter’s Moon was released in the UK on January 5, 2018, with no current plans to release in the USA. For all international release dates, see here.
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