Kornél Mundruczó | 121 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hungary, Germany & Sweden / Hungarian | 15 / R
Thirteen-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her dog Hagen are forced to temporarily live with her father, Dániel (Sándor Zsótér), because her mother is going on holiday with her new partner. Dániel doesn’t like Hagen anyway, but when the dog’s behaviour causes problems for him, he sets Hagen loose on the streets. Already angry with her father and his attitude, a devastated Lili sets out to find her beloved dog, who is busy discovering the darker side of mankind and our treatment of animals.
If White God sounds a bit bleak then, well, it can be. It’s a European arthouse drama, really, and so you get the attendant choices with pacing and storytelling style, as well as a commitment to realism — until the third act, at least, which I’ll come to in a moment. Hagen ends up in some very dark places, and co-writer/director Kornél Mundruczó doesn’t shy away from showing their brutality. Conversely, real dogs were used throughout filming, and the film doesn’t have a Hollywood budget for prosthetics or CGI, so we’re spared some of the imagery a less fiscally inhibited director might’ve forced upon us. Mundruczó insisted that all the dogs in the film were real animals trained to perform (and none were harmed, of course), which must’ve been limiting at times, but makes everything we see that much more effective.
For all the toughness of the journey, where it leads is triumphant; not entirely so, I must add, but enough. The film’s third act can pithily be described as Rise of the Planet of the Dogs: having seen the abuses of humans, an impounded Hagen leads a canine uprising that seeks to… well, they don’t speak (they’re dogs, remember, and this isn’t Disney), so who knows what their precise aims are? “Revenge” would be too cruel, but they definitely seeking some retribution. The film’s sadness doesn’t disappear (hence why not entirely triumphant), but some wrongs are righted.
The comparison to certain films about apes goes further than just the theme of an animal revolution, however: just like the last two Apes movies, White God drags a little when it leaves the animals for the humans. I’d love to see an edit which just followed Hagen’s story — you’d certainly keep all the film’s interesting and memorable bits, and lose very little. Not that the human bits are bad, per se, but they don’t go anywhere particularly new. Ooh, a teenager striking out, going to clubs (gasp!), and then realising that her parent isn’t such a monster after all (twist!) The performances are good — young Psotta is very naturalistic, and Zsótér makes you understand the humanity of someone who could’ve been a straightforward villain — but the dogs are where the real interest is at.
Some will find the middle of the film a slog, I suspect, both emotionally and with its occasionally lagging pace. However, the bookends seek to justify it. There’s catharsis in the finale, as described, but even better is the film’s opening. It has to be seen to be properly understood, but it’s operatically scored, shot, and edited, and involves hundreds (literally) of trained dogs en masse. It’s spectacular, unforgettable moviemaking; perhaps even one of the best openings to a film ever. And I don’t say that just as a “dog person”.
White God could benefit from tightening in some places, and less focus on the by-the-motions human subplots wouldn’t be a bad thing, but as a kind of magical realist drama, almost an arthouse take on certain Hollywood blockbuster narratives, it’s a compelling and sometimes awe-inspiring movie.