Jupiter’s Moon, directed by Kornél Mundruczó seeks to expose the extent of the Syrian refugee crisis currently happening across Europe.
It’s worth wondering whether the programmers at Cannes have a dark sense of humor. To be sure, their selection of films involves so much time and money that it’s a task to be taken incredibly seriously – and is by all outward appearances. But every now and then one gets the feeling of a wink and a nudge, based more on the juxtaposition of screenings than the selection themselves.
For example, Lynne Ramsey’s latest film, You Were Never Really Here, about the trafficking of underage girls, premiered the same day as Roman Polanski’s latest work (about, essentially, nothing).
Another example is Jupiter’s Moon, which showed on the same day as Okja . Both movies were the overt political powerhouses of the festival, sharing a desire to connect and persuade their audiences about events currently happening in the world through the guise of fictionalized narrative.
Okja makes a strong case about the disturbing nature of the American meat industry and genetic modification, things many can still avoid thinking about on a daily basis.
Jupiter’s Moon, directed by Kornél Mundruczó, is a Hungarian film with a more pressing, or at least more newsworthy message – ostensibly, it seeks to expose the extent of the Syrian refugee crisis currently happening across Europe, and the deplorable job Europeans are doing to address it.
I say ostensibly because this is the subject the movie begins on, and it’s difficult to discern where it goes from there.
We open on an overcrowded boat of Syrian migrants on a river which straddles the Hungary-Serbia border, a gateway to Europe which is currently being hit hard by immigrants and refugees. Aryan, a refugee played by Zsombor Jéger, clutches documents, and, for a moment, the hand of his father as the barge moves closer to shore, until border patrol boats suddenly show themselves, scattering all the occupants as they try and swim, then flee, to safety.
It’s breathtaking footage, much of it in very long shots which orbit around their subjects, sharply defining the active characters amid the absolute fray. The cinematography, by Marcell Rév, is seamlessly and subjectively focused in a style reminiscent of Son of Saul, another recent Hungarian film depicting the incomprehensible chaos of a German concentration camp.
The similarities don’t just end there – when Aryan is shot by a brutish border patrol officer upon crossing the border and carried to an overcrowded detention camp on the Hungary side for medical treatment, the roiling turmoil continues. The refugees seem like prey in a feeding frenzy, and their odds of prosperity are elevated or demolished in rapid-fire turn of events; though the film work is beautiful, content always outdoes style, and we are thrown back by seeing such realistically depicted action mirroring current events not shown often enough on the news today. In real life, Hungary has been facing UN sanctions and condemnation by human rights groups over their makeshift migrant prisons; the camp Aryan is taken to for medical assistance gives us some insight into why this is.
But just as you’re wrapping your head around the magnitude of what you’re seeing – taken as the realistic reenactment of actual events – a curious thing happens. Droplets of blood seeping from Aryan’s wounds begin to float in zero gravity. In the medical ward of the camp, Aryan himself rises from the table and wakes up, floating in mid-air, and spinning above the room as if in a bubble.
Like in Gravity (2013), the camera follows its subjects as they twirl helplessly, and the background of the medical ward becomes a blur as we move in on the centrifugal force of Aryan. The scene is beautiful and utterly confusing, and this is where the movie starts to fall apart. It is also, arguably, the inciting incident.
The first person, besides our corrupt border patrol officer, to see Aryan’s miraculous feat is Dr. Gabor Stern (Merab Ninidze), who – next surprise of the movie – actually turns out to be our hero.
If Jupiter’s Moon had been made in Hollywood, Stern would have been played by Robert Downey, Jr., the go-to character actor for substance abusers with hearts of gold. Stern is the head doctor at the detention camp, and is molded to his environment; he is canny and corrupt.
Owing legal fees over a botched, half-drunken surgery he performed while on call at a hospital, Stern makes money by taking bribes from detained refugees, who pay to be declared sick enough to be shuttled to a hospital further into Europe. But, when he sees Aryan levitate, Stern’s whole moneymaking tactic changes. He breaks Aryan out (starting a manhunt for both of them) and begins to show him to rich clients claiming he is an angel sent from God to perform miracles.
Interwoven between all this is Dr. Stern’s struggle to get sober, his mild curiosity over whether Aryan actually is an angel, the medical study into why Aryan began his levitation just after being shot, and an attempted terrorist attack made by some of the refugees who crossed the border with Aryan – for which he is framed – until all of this is cut short by the manhunt for the missing refugee, which takes the story over and finishes us out. It’s safe to say at least one too many things are happening at any given time. That the film manages to hold so much together and remain kind of coherent is itself a major feat, and to top it off it’s still stunning to look at. Many of the scenes derail into watching Aryan levitate and spin around the nearest chandelier, which is its own, very separate kind of entertainment. A portion of the movie is dedicated to a superb car chase captured entirely in one shot, perhaps the first of its kind. How this relates to which of the several plots is less revelatory. (Also what’s the point of trying to outdrive someone if you can fly?)
Most impressive, perhaps, is that Aryan can be the lynchpin of so much action and yet say, and do so little. He is an exotic and quasi-biblical pawn, passed between sinners and cynics.
Two hours later, the horrifyingly realistic depiction of contemporary events which opened Jupiter’s Moon feel like another film, and, perhaps just because it was such a strong beginning, it haunts the rest of the action as the movie Kornél Mundruczó should have made.
The real shame of this is the fact that, with so many scenes devoted to levitation and gunfights reminiscent of Die Hard, Mundruczó’s stunning work around the real-life refugee crisis loses its validity. Looking back, all the fictionalized refugee scenes begin to feel oversaturated with violence and mayhem.
Is it really that bad right now in Eastern Europe? Are border agents really shooting unarmed Syrians as they flee, because if so, the refugees sure aren’t flying afterward?
The haphazardly assembled plot point of a bomb planted on a subway by Syrians amidst Aryan and Stern’s runaway adventure is even more detrimental to politics outside the cinema – incendiary footage which seems to justify so much of the xenophobic abuse the movie is supposed to be pitted against. If only we could know what to solidly discard as spectacular fiction and what has served as nascent social commentary; in Jupiter’s Moon, it’s all thrown in together.
The film’s title Jupiter’s Moon as explained in the opening credits, comes from the discovery of an actual moon of Jupiter that contains water under its surface, which Mundruczó posits might one day be a haven, the next exclusive place for chaotic masses to reach for. Scientists have started calling this moon Europa. That right there, all actual fact, is exactly the type of thing someone should make a movie about. The only trick is knowing whether or not to make it science fiction.