Written by Kornél Mundruczó, Viktória Petrányi and Kata Wéber
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó
Dogs rise up against their human masters in Kornél Mundruczó’s White God, a film that is part-political allegory and part-bloody genre piece. The opening sequence shows a girl riding her bicycle through the sunny but deserted streets of Budapest, looking anxiously around her as she passes abandoned cars and empty buildings. Suddenly, from around the corner, hundreds of dogs appear, running with purpose, chasing and overtaking her. At this point, it feels like an apocalyptic dream, but, when White God returns to the scene later on, it has been contextualised in a narrative of oppression and justified revolt.
The girl on the bicycle is Lili (Zsófia Psotta), a smart but surly thirteen-year-old who has an intimate bond with her mongrel dog Hagen. When her mother temporarily moves abroad, Lili is forced to move into her estranged father’s (Zsótér Sándor) cramped apartment, where there is little room or desire to look after a large dog. Lili tries everything to keep Hagen, but, when he disturbs her music lesson and gets her thrown out of class, her father mercilessly throws him out on the street to fend for himself. As Hagen quickly finds out, the world is not kind to stray dogs and there are seemingly no limits to the torment people are prepared to put him through.
What follows is an exploration of the circumstances that lead to rebellion, both on a personal level and in a wider political context. Lili, upset at losing her dog and frustrated by being constantly treated like a child, clashes with both her father and her irritable music teacher (László Gálffi), leading her to seek a taste of adult life with an older teenage couple from her class. Hagen, meanwhile, is sold twice as a fighting dog, beaten, whipped, tortured and drugged, in scenes that may prove as difficult to watch for dog lovers as anything else they see on a cinema screen. The trainer’s violence might be driven by greed and ambition but it is only possible because he perceives Hagen as sub- (rather than simply non-) human.
As an allegory, White God works on a basic level, equating the dogs with ethnic minorities, slaves and other repressed subjects who have been exposed to similar treatment throughout human history. However, it fails to develop a convincing argument from that point, simultaneously emphasising the need for revolt and condemning what is, given the dogs’ intellectual and technological limitations, a crude but fairly restrained uprising. There are two significant issues in reading what is intended, in part at least, as a serious statement.
Firstly, the film equates rebellion with revenge – it can be argued that the only truly political act Hagen performs is engineering the escape from the pound. Secondly, the resolution is problematic and seems to undermine any strong arguments against the master-slave relationship per se. It is legitimate for a benevolent master to keep a slave, as long as he shows him love? Even if that leads indirectly to suffering elsewhere? White God is at best ambiguous when it comes to the bigger questions.
Fortunately, the film does not suffer too much from its lack of intellectual coherence and it is only towards the end that it really becomes an issue at all. And by that time, it has descended into outright horror, which might be entirely gratuitous but is certainly a lot of fun. Mundruczó enjoys toying with genre throughout the film, moving effortlessly through formal set pieces, such as the opening sequence, and personal scenes, with shaky, home video-style camerawork; he even ratchets up the score on occasion to make it feel like a twisted remake of The Incredible Journey. There is one key scene which is shot like a duel in a western, while the final act is clearly inspired by various horror subgenres and will continue to draw inevitable comparisons with Hitchcock’s The Birds.
The cast is also remarkable, including a wonderfully-assured breakout performance from the lead Psotta. Her character adds an essential human dimension and demonstrates how defiance can coexist with compassion and love. However, it is the canine stars which will take the plaudits, along with Mundruczó and his cinematographer Marcell Rév for undertaking the gargantuan task of shooting an entire film with such a large and varied gang of dogs, apparently without using CGI. Even if the subtext is not as bold or clever as it could have been, White God is refreshingly original and consistently entertaining.
– Rob Dickie