Film Review: White God (2014)

For anyone who has ever loved, cared for, or, hell, even petted a dog, White God will prove to be a searing, uncomfortable experience. Meshing heightened-realism with allegorical horror, Hungarian writer/director Kornel Mundruczo’s film powerfully connects on both an intellectual and emotional level. Although perhaps a little on the long side, White God is a stark, brutal and deeply moving examination of the human/animal dynamic, refreshingly devoid of sentiment.

It is hard to imagine why White God was granted production funds by the Hungarian National Film Fund. Obviously, one would assume the bureaucrats saw the inherent quality of the project – even if it was just in script form. However, White God also paints Hungarian society in a rather unsavory light. I personally have rarely seen a culture depicted on film that is so utterly hostile towards the animal world, where the canine is treated as the equivalent of a folklore monster or national boogeyman.

Thankfully, White God doesn’t wallow solely in human cruelty. The story opens with a moment of pure joy. Young Lilli (Zsofia Psotta) is playing with her mixed-breed dog Hagen in a serene-looking park. This is rudely interrupted by the arrival of her mother, who is leaving for an inexplicable, three-month conference with her boy toy.

Due to these circumstances, Lilli and Hagen are handed over to Lilli’s father Daniel. A disgruntled sad-sack (and sad excuse) of a man, Daniel seems to consider Lilli with not-so-gentle indifference and Hagen with little more than disgust. He soon becomes exasperated with Hagen’s presence in his rather cramped flat. This is augmented when someone reports the pup’s arrival and when a government official shows up at the front door asking Daniel to pay a “mongrel fine.”

These factors cause the already short-tempered man to break, culminating with him abandoning Hagen onto the mean city streets and Lilli to existential despair. This begins a new section in the film, which focuses on the parallel journeys of Hagen and Lilli and how they grapple with this traumatic separation.

White God builds its world from the ground up, illustrating through an early scene at a slaughterhouse the cruelly methodical relationship humanity has to animals. Multiple shots focus squarely on heaps of animal flesh, which appear throughout the film in a variety of contexts. The film effectively establishes that Hungarian society is dominated by a great, ironic contradiction: the humans consider the animal world to be beneath them yet ultimately cannot function without the sustenance it provides (in both a fiscal and nutritional sense).

White God’s structure invites (and allows) a myriad of interpretations. The brutality and exploitation suffered by Hagen on the streets feels positively Dickensian in nature, while scenes of dog catchers chasing down their prey have the feeling of an action film. Perhaps the film’s most lucid element though is its fixation on economics, which has a Marxist vibe.

Nearly every human character in White God is driven to commodify dogs they encounter, either through unabashed avarice or purely due to circumstance. In one torturous sequence, Hagen finds himself in the unfortunate predicament of being trained to be a fighting dog. This is perhaps one of the most unsettling sections of White God, although Mundruczo’s hand never seems gratuitous. One simply feels the dog fighter’s harsh indifference to Hagen’s wants and desires, not to mention how he views Hagen not as a living thing but as an investment, a business opportunity that can be shaped, molded and given a greater value.

With such powerful filmmaking fueling the dog-centric scenes of White God, it is not overly surprising that the human characters feel somewhat second-fiddle and underdeveloped. To be fair, the actors all shine in their respective parts. This mainly concerns Sandor Zsoter as Daniel and Zsofia Psotta who plays Lilli. The events of White God call for these actors to portray a dramatic transformation in the relationship between their characters, and while we fail to discover much about their inner-lives, the actors do sell us on this change.

One of the most daring aspects of the entire production, however, is not that it’s more focused on canines than homo sapiens. Instead, it’s how White God slowly imbues its non-human subjects with anthropomorphic features. Early in Hagen’s odyssey he is befriended by a small albeit insanely cute Jack Russel Terrier. This marks the beginning of Hagen’s integration into the fraternity of abandoned dogs that roam the streets of his eastern European city.

To some degree this shift in the dogs’ characterization makes the film difficult to take seriously, especially in a post-Rise of the Planet of the Apes landscape. The film’s believability becomes especially precarious by the film’s climax, where Hagen vengefully commands a mass of other dogs with a human-like sense of strategy.

With such a potentially polarizing shift in the film’s dynamics, the viewer is called upon to surrender to a frankly implausible third act and commit to viewing White God in a heavily-abstracted, metaphorical way. This is again where the Marxist interpretation seems somewhat appropriate, with the dogs collectively recognizing the terms of their exploitation and violently seeking retribution.

Some will probably not completely buy White God’s frenzied, final moments of lunacy. Others will perhaps never even get there, as the film does drag in moments and contains enough brutality to turn off even those with ambivalent feelings towards man’s best friend. But for those capable of completing the journey, what emerges from White God is a strikingly powerful paean. Savagely unsentimental with its approach, the film is a jarring reminder of something we seem doomed to continually forget: All living things want the chance at a dignified life.

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