Hungarian auteur Kornél Mundruczó has produced an undoubtedly confrontational, high-concept refugee thriller, but the persistent religious symbolism and heavy-handed Christ metaphors don’t quite come together to make a satisfying whole. It’s a picture for Cannes: grand, sometimes beguiling and momentarily overwhelming. But Mundruczó’s direction lacks control, and it’s hard to be sure whether this mishandling concerns the film’s moral clarity or broader sense of purpose. This is certainly a display of lofty ambitions – how do we locate meaning in contemporary, Godless Europe? – but the plot mechanics do not provide the trajectory to meet them.
Events start claustrophobically and encouragingly. Migrants hunch together in a truck, chickens squawk among them, and next – the heaving mass are on boats, split apart, with stark dystopian echoes suggesting an imminently grim future. The boats take incoming fire; men, women and children go under. Panic and survival. Silence and death. The intensity, close-ups and sense of disorientation of this opening sequence resembles the unbearable Son of Saul, directed by fellow countryman László Nemes. Among the migrants is the significantly named Aryaan (Zsombor Jéger), a wide-eyed young man who survives drowning and several gunshot wounds to the chest, courtesy of the odious, corrupt policeman László (György Cserhalmi). Panting uncontrollably after a few long-distance sprints, Aryaan begins to defy natural law, while László, wrought with disbelief and fear, stalks him onwards. The objectionable Dr Stern (Merab Ninidze), who enters the ad hoc camp to ostensibly provide medical relief for refugees, offers Aryaan some conditional help. Dr Stern’s motivations range from the financial to the self-serving. The good doctor – proponent of Enlightenment rationality yet morally grotesque – must assist his miraculous newfound cash-cow as László and the government forces close in.
The gravity-defying technical effects are breathtaking, and twirling Aryaan high above the sprawling city is an image difficult to eradicate. The film builds tension like a thriller in quite conventional ways: in chases, near misses and ominous pursuits. A late act of terrorism is indicative of the film’s genre splicing and to a certain extent its waywardness. The motivation for the scene is intellectually dubious. Metaphysical talk of religion, God, the nature of existence and the assertion of value are sometimes achieved with a bit of a twinkle – Aryaan’s father is a carpenter, after all. But Mundruczó largely takes it seriously, and well he might given the range of themes: the refugee crisis, tyranny in Hungary, police corruption and the modern loss of morality. Such seriousness requires control and focus, however, and while the film constantly grasps for the celestial outer reaches, the angels of restraint and profundity remain firmly within Earth’s atmosphere.