Look – up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a satire on anti-refugee paranoia? Is it a religiose parable of guilt and redemption? Is it a Euro-arthouse superhero origin myth?
Difficult to tell. Kornél Mundruczó’s Jupiter’s Moon is a messily ambitious and over-extended movie with some great images; like his previous picture White God it leaves behind the somewhat torpid realist mannerisms of his even earlier films such as Delta and skirts the fringes of sci-fi and fantasy. In fact, it is about a Syrian refugee who recovers from bullet-wounds inflicted by a trigger happy immigration cop and realises he has a superpower. He can fly!
It reminded me in some ways of Alejandro González Iñárittu and that film-maker’s fascination with the miraculous in Birdman, and also Biutiful. There is also something of Richard Linklater’s woozy visions in his Rotoscope animation Waking Life. This film was treated to some hooting and booing on its first screening in Cannes; it is a very odd, singular piece of work: not the visionary masterpiece it assumes itself to be and muddled in its effects and ideas. But certainly bold. It loses altitude yet never becomes earthbound.
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The action kicks off in the conventional terms of a thriller. Aryan (Zsombor Jéger) is a Syrian refugee from Homs who is trying to make his way into Hungary from Serbia, along with his father and many other wretched souls. They are all caught, and find themselves in a web of cynicism and corruption. Stern (Merab Ninidze) is a crooked Hungarian doctor who takes bribes from refugees to smuggle them out of the camp to hospital where they can disappear. László (György Cserhalmi) is an aggressive border cop who is not averse to taking his own cut for making the paperwork vanish.
But these men are confronted by a terrifying phenomenon. Aryan was shot by László, and as a result he can fly. So the schemingly exploitative Stern takes his bewildered new protégé on a tour of rich patients, demonstrating his superpowers, claiming angel-like gifts of healing – for huge cash fees. Yet Aryan is desperate to find his dad, from whom he was separated, and who it seems without his son’s protective presence is getting coerced into a jihadi terrorist plot. And Stern too is convulsed with guilt: he faces a civil malpractice suit for a botched operation carried out while he was drunk. So the “angel” Aryan could redeem him.
The idea of flying has poignancy as well as spectacle. Refugees, more than anyone, are subject to fences, borders, walls; they may well fantasise about a miracle which allows them to float over them to the promised land of the European Union, and to partake of the prosperity which allows the wealthy west to abolish the gravity which crushes them. (The title is a reference to Jupiter’s moon Europa: it is understood to have water which could possibly support life-forms.) There is also a brutal, if ambiguous kind of satire at work in conferring superpowers on refugees. I found myself thinking of a line in Armando Ianucci’s HBO comedy Veep: a much hated political lobbyist dismays everyone by becoming personally wealthy. One of his enemies snarls: “It’s as if Hitler could fly ...”
But what would it be like if someone really could fly? Jupiter’s Moon persuasively suggests it wouldn’t be like a Marvel comic book, but more as if he suddenly had the ability to play the violin with masterly skill: a power which earns gasps but also suspicion and which may destroy him. Jonathan Lethem’s “superpower” novel The Fortress of Solitude hints at something similar.
The problem with Jupiter’s Moon is that it is crammed with lots of other things - including a thriller-ish plot about terrorism involving an underground subway chase from the 1970s, and a full-on shootout in a hotel which Michael Mann might have enjoyed. But there is something arguably misjudged about a narrative which rather unreflectively suggests that refugees naturally have terrorists among their number.
Jupiter’s Moon isn’t a total success – but it’s aiming at the stars.