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Review: White God (2015)

White God (2015)

Directed by: Kornél Mundruczó

Premise: A Hungarian film. A teenage girl (Zsófia Psotta) is forced to give up her dog. While she searches for her pet, the dog roams the streets and is subject to abuse by animal control and dog fighting rings and eventually leads his fellow canines in a revolt.

What Works: Action movies tend to be the most purely cinematic motion pictures and the genre offers skilled directors the opportunity to do exciting and interesting things with the camera. White God isn’t necessarily a pure action movie, although it certainly has action elements. But the story of White God allows it to be very purely cinematic and the filmmakers are able to communicate a lot through the nonverbal performances of its lead actors and through the framing and assembly of the movie. White God begins as the story of Lili, a teenager who just wants to be with her dog, but a half hour into the picture the perspective forks and White God is also the story of the dog Hagen. The filmmakers do an excellent job of telling Hagen’s story and do so without the film becoming hokey or absurd. That’s all the more impressive given the dog’s trajectory over the course of this film. Hagen goes from coddled pet to underground fighter and eventually leads a revolutionary dog pack. The filmmakers handle the dog performers brilliantly. The canines of White God have perhaps a bit more intelligence and personality than real life dogs but they remain animals. The filmmakers establish the dogs as characters by staging scenes from the animals’ point of view and thereby create empathy with them but without anthropomorphizing them. This is well exemplified in a frightening dog fight in which Hagen’s abusive new owner forces him to fight another animal to the death. White God never turns into Cujo or Lassie but we are nevertheless able to empathize with Hagen and the other dogs in this movie. Hagen’s struggle on the streets is crosscut with Lili’s search for her missing pet, and actress Zsófia Psotta provides a mature and intelligent performance. As realistic as White God is, the movie also has one paw in the realm of fantasy. This canine revolt recalls something out of Aesop’s Fables or the climax of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and many scenes have an eerie dreamlike quality. That fantastical element is given credibility by the otherwise realistic elements of the story and the movie is able to straddle a delicate balance between realism and fantasy. The fact that White God is able to present a pack of mixed breed dogs running roughshod over city streets and not collapse into absurdity is an example of great filmmaking.

What Doesn’t: There is some debate about whether White God is intended to be taken literally or not and whether the movie is about animal rights or if the plight of the dogs is a metaphor of the treatment of minorities and immigrants. If White God is to be taken as a metaphor, and it certainly invites that reading, it isn’t clear if the movie applies to a particular group or if it is intending to make a more general statement about the way society treats undesirable groups. As the latter the film works just fine and that’s enough to make it a political statement. When the dogs finally revolt against humans, it is unclear if they are actually trying to accomplish a particular goal or if they are just randomly attacking the people they come across in an aimless escape from the shelter. If there is some purpose, it’s not clear what the plan is and if they are scheming that ascribes these animals a bit more intelligence than is credible. But if the dogs are just randomly going their way then there are an awful lot of coincidences as the pack catches up with nearly every major character from the earlier parts of the film.

Bottom Line: White God is an amazing cinematic accomplishment. The film is as cinematic as action pictures like Mad Max: Fury Road but it also has a lot going on with its characters and ideas.

Episode: #579 (January 24, 2016)