White God review

Man’s best friend has had it with us in the haunting Hungarian allegory White God.

White God opens with the kind of scene that immediately grabs your attention and demands that you watch the rest of the movie: a young girl rides down an empty Budapest street on a bicycle, as suddenly hundreds of dogs emerge and begin running after her. It’s an arresting, indelible image that sets the tone for this strange, passionate and unsettling allegory from Hungarian writer and director Kornél Mundruczó. If you combined Rise of the Planet of the Apes with foreign language arthouse fare, you might get something like White God, which is never less than compelling even when it is sometimes impenetrable and at other times plain difficult to watch.

After that opening sequence, we flash back weeks earlier. That girl, 13-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta), whose parents have gone through a bitter divorce, is forced to live with her father (Sándor Zsóstár) when her mother must leave on an extended trip for work. Lili is accompanied by her beloved mixed-breed dog Hagen — but her cautious acceptance of the situation is short-lived when her father, rather than pay a newly levied tax on people who own mongrels instead of purebred dogs, decides to cruelly abandon Hagen by the side of the highway. A furious and heartbroken Lili sets out to find her dog, while Hagen himself goes in search of his mistress.

As Lili conducts her fruitless search — acting out against her father and her cold-hearted music teacher along the way instead of preparing for her school concert — Hagen is run through a gauntlet of challenges that will probably make dog lovers walk out (or turn off the video-on-demand order) and would give even the more resilient among us pause. After eluding dogcatchers, he is captured by a street person and sold to a man who owns and trains dogs for fighting. It is during this stretch – Hagen’s “training” and first fights, during which we watch an attempt to transform this gentle animal into a savage killer — that the harshness and heartlessness of the world in which Mundruczó has placed us takes a painful grip.

Hagen eventually moves on, aligns himself with a pack of wild canines but is eventually placed in a shelter — where he and scores like him face death. And that is where White God makes the leap from gritty, unsparing drama to surreal allegory, as Hagen leads an uprising that sends hundreds of dogs into the streets and Budapest into lockdown as the animals seek their vengeance against the humans who have so bitterly treated and often betrayed them. The question becomes whether Lili can find Hagen in time and stop him — or is his wrath too far gone to even recognize the one person who still loves him as unconditionally as he once loved her?

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White God works on several levels: purely as an upscale version of classic man-vs-nature movies that span the gamut from The Naked Jungle to Day of the Animals to the aforementioned Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in which a super-intelligent chimp leads a simian revolt against those who treat them inhumanely even under the pretense of doing the opposite. Then there is the symbolic class struggle, with the dogs standing in for anyone who’s been left behind and treated like garbage in the post-Cold War global economy. Finally, White God poses the problem of what happens when we lose the capacity to love and forgive, a notion not only embodied by Hagen’s plight but by the sadly broken relationship between Lili and her father.

Mundruczó leaves all those ideas out there for you but doesn’t spoonfeed you the answers. The motives and emotions of the dogs remain opaque, beyond human understanding, thus rendering them both more frightening and somehow spiritual. The only hint we have of what Hagan is thinking — and he is thinking, that much is certain — is in the moist pools of his eyes, through which sadness, fury, and hurt ripple like the fleeting wake of barely glimpsed fish breaking the surface before darting back under.

Hagen is played by two dogs named Bodie and Luke, who create one of the most extraordinary animal performances you’re likely to ever see. More astonishing is that the dogs in the movie — all 280 of them — are real (and all were apparently found homes after filming ended). Mundruczó does not resort to CG trickery, using in-camera wizardry, terrific cinematography and editing and the brilliant work of animal trainer Arpád Halász to make his animal rebellion happen in front of your eyes. The special effects are reserved for the scenes of violence — between animal and animal or animal and human — that do not spare the viewer (nor does an early scene in which Lili’s father, a slaughterhouse inspector, calmly watches workers eviscerate the corpse of a cow).

Credit too must go to Psotta and Zsóstár, who deliver the only relatively complex human performances in a movie where most of the people are fiends. The loss of her dog represents the loss of Lili’s innocence; she’s desperate to get him back and center herself before she allows herself to give into the temptations of becoming a young adult. Her father Daniel is too mean at first to eke out any sympathy whatsoever, but eventually finds himself on a semi-believable path to redemption.

Make no mistake, however: White God belongs to the dogs. Even as they lunge for our throats, they still, in their own unique way, exhibit more concern for each other than we do, and more capacity for loyalty and love. In the end, this thoroughly original and disquieting film persuasively suggests, to paraphrase a line from the very first Planet of the Apes, that they’re better than us.

White God is out in theaters now.

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4 out of 5