The apocalyptic scene that opens Kornél Mundruczó’s White God (although the director denies it, the title is surely an allusion to Samuel Fuller’s film White Dog) makes clear that this is not a realist drama. A young girl cycling through an eerily deserted city, passing abandoned cars. Suddenly dozens of dogs round a street corner behind her and start to chase. This scene evokes similar early sequences in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, an unnaturally still metropolis dwarfing a solitary figure before the introduction of a terrifying and inexplicable threat.
The film then moves back in time. We discover the girl on the bicycle is 13-year-old Lili. She is left with her father Dániel when her mother embarks upon a three month cruise (the parents are separated). The already less than thrilled dad is dismayed to find the girl comes with her beloved dog Hagen in tow. His apartment building has a strict no dogs policy. Sensing her father’s indifference to both her and her pet, Lili begins to act out against his paternal authority and that of the austere music school where she is enrolled.
After a disapproving neighbour fabricates a complaint by falsely claiming she was bitten, Dániel receives an official ultimatum and in a distressing scene abandons Hagen by a busy road, driving away with a weeping Lili pressed to the window watching the dog disappear in the distance. Determined to find Hagen Lili plays truant from school to place ‘lost dog’ posters around the city. However, the adults around her are at best indifferent, at worst openly hostile. Meanwhile, Hagen the dog must quickly adapt to a hazardous new life on the streets, scavenging for food and avoiding the attentions of government animal control officers.
If this sounds like an inspirational and sentimental Disney Channel movie, think again. Lured off the streets by a homeless man, Hagen is sold to a restaurant owner who offers cash for street dogs who is then used in illegal dog fighting. The following scenes are harrowing in the extreme, and difficult viewing for any dog lover (although they are clearly accomplished through the skills of direction, special effects, cinematography and editing). As the parallel stories of Lili and Hagen drift further apart, the film moves more and more into the realm of metaphor and allegory. Hagen meets other street dogs, and through his brutalisation in the fighting ring learns to hate humans.
Mundruczó does not overtly anthropomorphise his canine star, there is no CGI, no talking cute pooches, no quasi scientific or supernatural explanations for what is about to happen. Hagen learns hatred, but not fear, and when finally captured and interned in a Government animal shelter that from the dog’s point of view resembles a concentration camp (including a ‘final solution’ that presents itself under the guide of kindness) the dog turns on his captors and leads a canine revolution that brings violent chaos to the streets.
White God is not a subtle film. It is not intended to be a subtle film. Mundruczó has fashioned a rising crescendo of intensity that is coupled to often thunderous musical accompaniment. The director copiously uses the music of Ferenc Liszt. In particular his Hungarian Rhapsodies music that he has said in interviews evokes frustration over social injustice. Despite being the winner of the Un Certain Regard award at the Cannes Film Festival, the film received an ‘interesting’ reaction from some of the assembled film writers and bloggers at the 2014 London Film Festival press screening (where I first saw it) that ran a gamut of hilarity from chuckles to howls of derisory laughter. Is it really now the case that film cannot present a clearly metaphorical narrative without being taken literally?
While it is not without humour, a scene in which dogs quizzically watch a Tom and Jerry cartoon (in which Tom is a concert pianist) with heads cocked to one side raises justified laughter, this is a passionate and angry film about injustice and revolution. Mundruczó also possibly over-heats the final section of the film. One scene of a television reporter excitedly talking about a canine ‘army’ does play to those looking to find something to laugh at. But is it only possible for aspiring critics to take such ideas seriously when delivered by a talking CGI monkey? The laughter was not just a shameful reaction. It demonstrated a frankly depressing failure of imagination.
While the human cast are good and Zsófia Psotta – who plays Lili with a fierce intensity – is excellent, the real stars of this film are Body and Luke, the two dogs who play Hagen. While the entire canine cast deservedly won the Palm Dog award at Cannes (a prestigious award for doggy thespians previously won by the hairy Pacino that is Uggie for his performance in The Artist) Body and Luke are exceptional, a four legged Matt Damon as capable at expressing vulnerability and soulfulness as they are with the film’s action set-pieces. An early sequence in which they are pursued through back streets by uniformed men with poles and lassos is right up there with the chase across the rooftops of Tangiers in The Bourne Legacy.
This is a visceral, often upsetting, sometimes moving but always passionate parable for violent revolution and one of the most unusual, thrilling and upsetting films you will see this year. It begins with one unforgettable and haunting sequence and ends with another. Each of which will have audiences wondering how they were accomplished.
This review was first published on the blog of the late lamented Verite Film Magazine http://www.veritefilmmag.com
White God is released on UK DVD by Metrodome on the 3rd of August