Rising Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s staggeringly well-shot but painfully strained new film is the first since his staggeringly well-shot but painfully strained “White God.” It opens with a title card informing us that Jupiter has 67 moons, but Europa is the only one that might be capable of supporting life. At the time, such information seems like it could be a helpful bit of context for the adventure to come. But “Jupiter’s Moon” is not set in outer space. In fact, neither Europa nor any of the gas giant’s other 66 moons are mentioned again. It turns out that the factoid is only the first salvo of a senseless metaphor that’s stretched across two hours of the visually dazzling movie that follows.
“Jupiter’s Moon” — like so many other films at Cannes this year — centers on Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis. It begins in the dead of night, as a scared group of illegal aliens begin a treacherous boat trip somewhere on the fringes of Hungry. But trouble is quick to find them; in the first of many fluid action sequences to come, immigration authorities begin firing into the water, sending people scattering in all directions. Somewhere in the chaos, Mundruczó’s camera finds a young Syrian man named Aryan (Zsombor Jéger, a dead ringer for Gael García Bernal), who loses sight of his father and begins sprinting into the nearby forest. He’s pursued by Lászlo (György Cserhalmi), a trigger-happy cop who plugs the 20-something full of bullets.
That’s when something curious happens: Aryan doesn’t die. Instead, droplets of blood begin to lift from his body, as though freed from the forces of gravity. The rest of him soon follows, the refugee soon floating some 50 feet above the raid before he drops back down to Earth. Nobody seems to have seen this little vision, but Aryan stages a repeat performance when a disgraced former doctor named Stern (Merab Ninidze, in a sly, morally uncertain performance) finds him in the hospital of the local refugee camp. Faster than you can say “Children of Men,” the rumpled has-been and the magical refugee are on the lam.
But “Jupiter’s Moon” is no simple story of escape, in part because Mundruczó’s script (co-written with Kata Wéber) has no real idea where it’s going. Like seemingly everyone else in Hungary’s apparent economy of bribes, Stern is preoccupied with money, though the reasons for his fundraising efforts are unclear until the film’s second half.
Naturally, his first thought is to put his new friend to work, forcing Aryan to perform “miracles” of healing for the most desperate of Budapest’s dying. Stern gives the order, Aryan floats in the air, and the patient is made to believe they’re cured. The details of the exchange are murky, but Mundruczó sure delights in showing off his favorite special effect, as Aryan lifts off the ground and slowly flails his limbs around, as if he were floating in water. “Thank me, not God,” Stern used to tell the refugees who paid for his help. Not anymore.
While these performances soon become repetitive, and do a poor a job of deepening Aryan and Stern’s relationship, they’re such a joy to watch. Mundruczó, who combines Alfonso Cuarón’s penchant for long takes with Steven Spielberg’s gift for layering several planes of action in a single shot, can turn the most mundane story beat into a viscerally arresting masterclass of cinematic movement (much credit belongs to his usual cinematographer, Marcell Rév).
In one particularly spellbinding sequence, the camera follows Aryan as he escapes out the window of a high-rise apartment building and floats to the street below, the action seamlessly picking up when he touches down on the pavement. It’s not just the trajectory of these compositions, but also their details; in the shot, the way Aryan’s shadow slopes off the building wall is a small astonishment of its own.
Even the film’s lone car chase is a breathless experience, as Rév and Mundruczó strap a camera on the hood of a high-powered sedan and lead us on a winding, high-speed drive that always seems framed for maximum impact. These people are the film’s true miracle workers, and they could turn Hollywood upside down if given half a chance (a Marvel movie backed by this sort of talent would be a genuine game-changer).
And then… there’s everything else. Not only is it difficult to care about either Aryan or Stern, who mutually teach each other the value of caring for someone other than themselves, but over time the film also exposes the characters as cheap stand-ins for simplistic moral lessons. Each time that Aryan floats toward the heavens, or that Stern makes a snarky comment about his own improprieties, these men edge just a little bit closer to revealing themselves as simple proxies.
Eventually, Mundruczó loses all patience, abandoning his plot in favor of simply telling us what he’s trying to say. Don’t worry if you don’t catch it when Stern demands the resurrection of Hungary, or bemoans how “horizontal” his country has become (as opposed to the vertical pull of heaven and hell). Mundruczó won’t let this movie end before he’s sure that you get the message: We can either sink alone or swim together, but the refugees are coming one way or the other, and judgment day won’t be far behind. Also, Jupiter has 67 moons, and “Europa” sounds like “Europe.”
“Jupiter’s Moon” premiered in Competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.