White God / “Fehér isten” (Hungary, 2014)

"It's an elephant can't u see?!"

White God is a brilliantly imagined fable about power, the underclass and man’s relationship with animals. The story is told through 13-year old Lili and her dog, Hagen, who upon being abandoned by Lili’s father must navigate a pitiless world of dog controllers and malicious dog fighters. The film shows us a dog’s-eye view of the world and has tremendous visuals. If you look hard enough, there’s even a political message about the underclass and how it can rise up to wreak vengeance on its tormentors. Guaranteed to be one of the best indie films of 2015.


Genre: Drama/Art-house | Director: Kornél Mundruczó | Writers: Kata Wéber, Kornél Mundruczó & Viktória Petrányi | Actors: Zsófia Psotta and dogs Bodie & Luke| Cinematographer: Marcell Rév | Studio: x | Producers: Viktória Petrányi, Karl Baumgartner, Michael Weber, Viola Fugen, Fredrik Zander, Gábor Kovács & Jessika Ask. |
One sentence description: Planet of the Apes meets Beethoven
One (long) sentence review: An entertaining but occasionally harrowing fable about power and animals.
Watch it if…You like your politics in allegorical form.
Don’t watch it if…You’re squeamish about seeing animals beaten on film.
Best thing about the film…the performance by the two key dog actors, who received the Palm Dog (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palm_Dog_Award).

The story
Lili (Zsofia Psotta) is a 13 year old schoolgirl whose life is primarily made up of 3 things: her bike, trumpet and her dog, Hagen. This happy medium is disturbed when two things happen: the government makes it difficult to keep mixed-breed dogs and her mother leaves Lili with her uncaring dad for a few days. A neighbour reports the dog to the authorities who then harass Lili’s dad. Out of exasperation, Lili’s dad leaves Hagen by the side of a busy road and Lili is unable to find him again. We then follow two storylines – Hagen’s journey through the wicked underworld of Budapest and Lili’s devastation at losing Hagen and her subsequent attempts to get on and fit into school. Things come to a head when Hagen finds himself at a pound, almost certain to be put down. They have a reunion in unusual circumstances.

The review
White God will surely be considered one of the most extraordinary films of 2015, and was held on ‘Un Certain Regard’ at Cannes 2014. Given its poignant central relationship, great performances by the dog cast and an enjoyable mix of horror and comedy, there really is nothing out there like it. This film is also a magnificently realised fable about humans’ relationship with animals, abuse of power and the marginalisation of people not considered ‘normal’.

The film takes place entirely in the urban surroundings of inner Budapest, which becomes clear in an astounding initial shot - a young girl is riding her bicycle through deserted city streets when suddenly a horde of dogs comes bursting through, overwhelming the cityscape. What follows is a mixture of quiet and loud moments. The film veers from child-and-dog cuteness to family drama, horror and dark humour. Halfway through the film, we see the neglected dogs rise up as one to hurt those who have hurt them, in the most visceral fashion. Then there’s the dark humour – such as when the dogpack quietly stalks the vicious dog fighter in his own lair, and we see two pairs of badly hidden dog legs peeking out from under a table, an obvious spoof of classic horrors.

One of the film’s main conceits is how problems are mirrored between 13 year old Lili and her dog, Hagen. Both are rejected by mainstream society, partly due to lack of understanding but also due to rebellion. Lili, as portrayed by Zsófia Psotta, is one of the most confident female screen characters I’ve seen in a while. Even in scenes where she’s raging at her powerlessness against callous fathers and authoritarian orchestra leaders (as we’ve seen elsewhere in 2014 - www.imdb.com/title/tt2582802/), she exudes confidence and intelligence. This is again mirrored by the experiences of Hagen, who is powerless to defend himself against dogcatchers and dognappers.

The human side of the film consists almost entirely of grim and unfeeling characters like Lili’s father, who not only does not seem to have the time to spend with her but also separates her from the only being who did (Hagen), or the homeless man who saves Hagen from the dog control droids but then trades him for dinner and a pittance. This culminates in the most obviously villainous character in the film - the dog fighter who, through violence, drugs and steroids, transforms Hagen from a cuddly, needy domestic dog to a feral fighter. If this sounds like a different movie to what preceded it, this demonstrates one of the film’s indulgences – massive shifts in tone.

Director Korel Mundruczó does a great job of pulling all the various elements together with the large canine cast and closing the story by the end of the film. However, the film was not nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and it’s not hard to see why – the political allegory is merely alluded to, which is all well and good to be discussed in a film review but not in the cinema café afterwards. It’s also hard to see what Mundruczó’s grand vision really was – where specifically is this aimed? The hand of the state hovers heavily over most of this film, like Lili’s father, who is a meat quality assurer (his stamp reads “approved for consumption”) and the menacing government dog controllers. But these seem like petty targets, when in reality the film is aimed at heightened far right movements in Hungary and elsewhere, who like to define citizenship along racial and religious lines. The Jobbik party, for example, routinely references “true” Hungarianism and is infamous for protesting the World Jewish Congress in Budapest and claiming that Jews were attempting to “buy up Hungary” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22413301).

The stars of the film are undoubtedly the dogs, who, handled by Teresa Ann Miller, portray every storyline and emotion with gusto. There is often the feeling with dog movies that the dogs are required to do nothing other than be cute, but in this film we see a wide variety of emotions and situations. The behaviour of Hagen changes over the course of the film, from being the loveable, needy house pet to the smart and ruthless champion of his people systematically and symbolically wreaking vengeance in an orgy of terror and violence.

By the end though, there is a sense of triumph as neither Lili nor Hagen succumb to their private battles and their personalities are left intact. Nonetheless, there is a lingering sense that if you treat a community like feral animals for long enough, they might just come to play the part. AM

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