By John Duncan Talbird.
In the opening seconds of Kornél Mundruczó’s White God (2014), we see a bird’s-eye view of Budapest, but a Budapest absent any people. It’s reminiscent of the opening of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… (2002) where downtown London has been wiped clean of people from what we soon discover is a good old-fashioned zombie plague. And then, just as with Cillian Murphy in the earlier film, there’s a lone survivor. We see the tiny movement of a bicycle crossing a bridge and then cut to a closeup of a girl (Zsófia Psotta) riding, a backpack looped over her shoulders. She crosses the bridge and then, in slow motion, a horde comes around a corner, a pack of dogs. But this is not any pack, these are dozens of dogs, and then hundreds of every shape and size. They fill the streets, falling over each other as they run toward the girl who is clearly moving too slowly to stay ahead of the pack. It’s an awesome spectacle and we don’t need to be told that this is not CGI trickery. We somehow know that these are real dogs, that this isn’t even Hitchcock’s analog slight-of-hand where bird silhouettes are interspersed with the real thing. For every dog we see there is a real, breathing, slobbering dog, and it’s barreling down on this poor, defenseless girl.
White God seemed to come out of nowhere despite the fact that Mundruczó had directed five previous features and over twice as many shorts going back to 1998. I had seen a couple of his earlier films – 2008’s Delta and 2010’s Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project – but I would be hard-pressed to remember much about them. Their plots are slow-moving; they’re arty and fragmented. At first glance, watching White God, it seems like some banker or day trader has given Mundruczó a bag of money. To pull off an extravaganza like this opening scene, surely White God has Hollywood-level funding. Except that it doesn’t. It didn’t even cost a million more euros to make than the decidedly indie Tender Son and about a fourth of what 28 Days Later… cost to make. Nearly all of the 280 dogs used in the film were found at local animal shelters and trained and herded by individual trainers (later adopted by everyday people like you and me). Mundruczó has said the majority of his budget went into the dogs’ scenes. Most of the human actors are unknowns and first-timers.
His budget has risen once again to a modest four million Euros. And again, he has managed to do a lot with a little. Despite the fact that Christopher Nolan’s bloated and flashy, if narratively empty, Inception (2010) cost thirty-five times as much to make as Jupiter’s Moon, there is an amazing scene in Mundruczó’s film which rivals any mind-blowing that Nolan’s movie attempts: A young man floats in the center of a room while it rotates on its access. All of its belongings, including one unfortunate man, fall to the wall, then the ceiling, and then the other wall, finally coming to rest in a pile back on the floor. This was done without CGI, using a rotating set and wires.
Jupiter’s Moon, now available on DVD from Icarus Films, is about refugees in Europe. The story begins with a group of Syrians attempting to cross the Hungarian border via a nighttime lake. They’re confronted by border security who open fire and the boats capsize. One of the refugees, a young man named Aryan (Zsombor Jéger) is separated from his father. Back on land, in a tense tracking shot through thick trees, he runs, hoping to get away. He confronts a police officer (György Cserhalmi) who shoots him. And this is where the movie takes a strange turn. The officer leaves Aryan in pursuit of other refugees and the boy floats up into the sky, a breathtaking shot in which he, and we, flip through the air, the trees below us and then the sky.
We cut to another character, a doctor named Gabor Stern (Merab Ninidze). Stern is an alcoholic with a dark secret in his past and a debt that he is slowly trying to pay off. He does this by taking bribes from refugees who he lets out of the camp. When he arrives at the camp on the morning after the attempted refugee crossing from the first scene, he discovers Aryan in his examination room. Aryan, in his rudimentary English, says, “Doctor, something happened.” The doctor is amazed to see three bullet holes which have passed straight through the young man. He shouldn’t be sitting up, let alone alive. And then everything starts to rise: blood droplets, Aryan’s shoelaces, and then his entire body. A drinking straw also rises up and floats into a fan, getting stuck and making a racket. In a panic, the doctor leaves the room. When he calms down, he comes out of the bathroom and the young man is gone. The doctor gets into a fight with his boss, the same officer who shot Aryan, and is fired. As has already been established, he needs money badly. He hatches a far-fetched scheme in which he will find Aryan and have him perform miracles in order to profit off them. Even more far-fetched, this scheme actually works. For a while.
The plot meanders and sometimes it’s a little boring. But not boring in an art film kind of way, but in a not-much-here-to-say kind of way. White God, too, was criticized by some due to the unfocused nature of its plot and its lack of a narrative center. But that film makes use of familiar genre tropes; it’s a hybrid of disaster, lost-pet, and horror films. And so, despite the sometimes-meandering nature of White God’s plot, the viewer always has the sense that we’re moving toward something bigger. And we’re not disappointed in the ambiguous and beautifully composed final bird’s-eye tableau of all of those dogs lying on the street with the little trumpet-playing girl like a dot positioned in front of them. Jupiter’s Moon tries to move in its way toward a similar magical moment, this one seemingly lifted from the opening of Wim Wenders Wings of Desire (1987). But that earlier film is using its bit of childlike wonder to teach us about what type of film we’re about to watch. Mundruczó’s film hasn’t earned its earnestness. It’s been dark and sometimes bleak and chaotic, but up until its finale, it’s not attempted to channel the innocence it wants to leave us with. This is unfortunate because the message – which seems to be a riff on the biblical allegory of Sodom and Gomorrah (without all the homophobic subtext) – is one that is useful to hear in these days of mass hysteria and fears of the “other” at our borders. Essentially, the film seems to be saying, when a needy person shows up at our home, it might not be wise to slam the door in his face. He might be an angel.
At one point, Aryan steps off the doctor’s balcony near the top of a modernist housing project skyscraper. He floats downward like a leaf and the camera follows him, tracking past each of the neighbors’ apartment windows, so that we can peer in as we go, the young man’s shadow crawling the concrete like a 21st-century Gregor Samsa. There are so many arresting shots like this, so it’s disappointing to report that the film doesn’t add up to more than it does. Marcell Rév’s sure, long camera takes and Jed Kurzel’s ambient soundtrack create a sense of dread and suspense throughout, and so we’re a little letdown with what we’re left with at the end. Despite all this, the effects, even the formal innovations in what are pretty standard chase scenes, make us wonder about the film that could have been, and they make us think about what Mundruczó will pull out of his hat the next time around. He’s clearly got more magic tricks to show us, and I can’t help but think he’s also got something important to say.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.