‘White God’: Rise of the mutts

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For Digital First Media

If you regard dogs as cute little pooches, seeing the “White God” might trigger a radical revision in your attitude.

In an expertly staged prologue, a young girl in bobby socks is bicycling nonchalantly through the streets of Budapest. There is no evidence of any other humans or automobiles. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a pack of dogs turns the corner. They come running down the street at full tilt, emitting a cacophonous din of angry yelping and barking. Is this a nightmare or is it really happening?

After the credits, the film flashbacks to introduce Lili (Zsófia Psotta). She is the girl, who was seen pedaling in the first scene.  She has recently entered adolescence, but still exudes a childlike innocence.

Lili has no siblings and seems to have no significant friends. However, she enjoys a close relationship with her dog, Hagen, a mixed breed mutt.

Lili lives with her mother, who is divorced from her dad. However, Lili’s mother is headed for Australia, where she will working for three months.

Lili’s father, Dániel (Sándor Zsótér), is a one-time university professor. However, now he has a lowly bureaucratic job as a slaughterhouse inspector.

A screen capture from a trailer to the film "White God" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIGz2kyo26U

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “White God” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIGz2kyo26U

A well-constructed scene of bovines being mechanically stripped of their hides is revolting. The depiction could turn the most ardent carnivore into a vegetarian. The vignette also serves as a subtle reminder of something that we take for granted. The human species occupies the top spot on the food chain. Other animal species are raised for our consumption.

While Lili’s mother is away in Australia, Lili will live with her dad. The custodial hand-off between the parents proves tense. There seems to be no natural rapport between Lili and her father. When Dániel asks why Lili hasn’t given him a kiss, she begrudgingly gives him a ceremonial peck on the cheek.

The living situation is awkward. Lili doesn’t have her own room. Her father simply separates the twin bed in his room to provide Lili with a spot to sleep in. Lili is accustomed to having her beloved dog, Hagen, sleep in the same bed as her. However, Dániel refuses to allow Hagen to sleep in the bedroom.

A nosy neighbor advises Dániel that the apartment complex doesn’t allow dogs. Moreover, the busybody clucks that the government has recently passed new legislation. Henceforth, if you own a mixed breed dog, you are required to pay a steep registration fee.

The next day, a government inspector shows up at Dániel’s doorstep.  He announces the receipt of anonymous tip that Dániel owns a mixed breed dog. Although Dániel steadfastly denies the accusation, the inspector sees Hagen in the background.

Now, Dániel is faced with the prospect of paying a substantial fee for a dog that he doesn’t particularly like. While Lili is away at school, Dániel abandons Hagen at the side of the road. When Lili finds out what Dániel has done, her reaction is an amalgam of despair and anger toward her father.

Hagen is accustomed to a cushy life as a house pet. How will he survive on the streets of Budapest?  Things turn bleak, when Hagen becomes the property of a man, who enters him in a dog-fighting ring.

Meanwhile, Lili is trying to track down her beloved Hagen. She puts up fliers and wanders the streets frantically looking for him Even if Lili finds Hagen, will their relationship be shattered by the cruelty that the dog has endured?

“White God” benefits from an understated, naturalistic debut performance by Zsófia Psotta. However, the real star of the film is non-human. Luke and Body, the two canines, who jointly portray Hagen, are tremendous. They convincingly capture the emotional vicissitudes of a dog, who transitions from docile pet to snarling warrior.

Drawn from an imaginative screenplay that he co-wrote, director, Kornél Mundruczó delivers a taut, well-paced film. The technical values are superb. Director of photography, Marcell Rev, and editor, David Jancso, have adroitly cobbled together footage from the two different perspectives, that of Hagen and his master. Asher Goldschmidt provides a particularly evocative score that complements the visual text.

In an era in which CGI prevails, “White God” refreshingly spurns such artificial embellishments. However, it remains unclear how the filmmakers were able to create the various scenes that involve Hagen and his canine colleagues. When you see the dogs running wild through the streets of Budapest and acting in other carefully orchestrated scenes, you will be incredulous. It is rare to cite an animal trainer in a film review. However, in this case, it would be negligent not to cite head animal trainer, Teresa Ann Miller, for her pivotal contributions to the film.

“White God” made its debut at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Prize Un Certain Regard award. It subsequently won the Octopus d’Or at the Strasbourg European Film Festival for the Best International Feature Film. It was submitted by Hungary to the 87th annual Academy Awards in the category as Best Foreign Language Film, but was not nominated.

“Planet of the Apes” and its myriad sequels depicted a reversal of species supremacy on planet Earth. “White God” might be regarded as an analogue to those films. This Hungarian film replaces hominids with mutts. The narratively engaging and visually stunning, “White Dog,” will force you to reconsider the relationship between humans and our putative best friends.

**** R (for violent content including bloody images, and language) 121 minutes. In Hungarian with English subtitles

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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