“White God” may be about the adventures of a dog and a young girl but it’s about as far from a Disney tooth-decayer as Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage” is from the meet-cute Hollywood romance. Set against the austere backdrop of post-Soviet Budapest, this Hungarian import is all about interstices – between childhood and adulthood, between victimhood and villainy, between haves and have-nots, between humankind and animals, and between tweens and the rest of the world. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Allegories can be extracted left and right but it’s also a red-blooded revenge thriller that puts humans in the hot seat. No wonder the title is a wordplay on Sam Fuller’s nature-versus-nurture masterpiece, “White Dog.”
Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is the tween in question, and she really does live at odds with the world. Less sulky than curmudgeonly, she wears a no-frills uniform of hoodie and hooded eyes, and flaunts her delayed physical development as a conscientious objection to the War of the Sexes that was her parents’ divorce. Armed with a trumpet and her dolefully charismatic mutt, Hagen (played by brother dogs Body and Luke, mixes of Shar-pei, Labrador, Walter Matthau, and Ramona Quimby), she’s stowed with Daniel, her meat inspector dad (Sándor Zsótér), while her fancier mother travels abroad for work. Lili has fended for herself for so long that she resents any adult who dares tell her what to do, and her father would be considered a petty tyrant by any standards. With his monkish pad and impotent rages, he’s mean in every sense of the word – especially when it comes to Hagen, Lili’s only source of intimacy and comfort. When he abandons the dog by the side of the highway, Lily weeps angry, helpless tears she’d never bother to shed over either of her parents.
As devastated as she is, Hagen is even more brokenhearted, and we feel his pain, too. From there, it’s two tales of one city: the streets and seamy clubs through which Lili trudges, first in a futile search for Hagen and then for cold comfort; the seamy back alleys, garbage dumps, and crime worlds through which Hagen is pursued by animal control henchmen. Breathless and pounding, these chase scenes outstrip any in recent action pics, but – and pardon the pun – director Kornél Mundruczó has bigger bones to pick.
These days, films about animal cruelty can pack a greater wallop than dead-child movies, which have become a dime a dozen. From the minute a shivering Hagen realizes Lili isn’t coming back to save him, I watched with eyes streaming and a lump in my stomach. (Thank God for the advisory that all homeless animal cast members were found homes upon the film’s completion.) The parallel of the pair’s trajectories – their isolation, their vulnerability to predators’ greed and cruelty, their inevitable hardening – reminds us that dogs and children bond not only because of a shared openheartedness but because they’re subject to masters who don’t necessarily deserve their domain. Childhood isn’t for sissies, and neither is being an animal in a man-made world.
But while Daniel eventually opens his wounded heart, paving the way for Lili to soften her own, no such mercy is extended to Hagen. Instead, he’s caught by a dog-fight trainer who, with steroids and beatings, molds him into a killing machine. (When he’s forced to murder another dog, his eyes well with an encyclopedia of rage, grief, and old-soul comprehension – the best acting I’ve seen this year.) Even after an electrical outage facilitates his escape, Hagen can’t catch a break. He and another stray are dragged to the local pound, where he finally snaps, leading his canine compatriots in a deathly uprising that takes the entire city hostage. This is a revolution to behold: bloody and brilliant, with a remorseless, elegantly executed ferocity that puts the recent “Planet of the Apes” reboot to shame.
By the time Lili and Hagen are reunited, both have permanently exited that interstice they once shared. His fangs are irrevocably sharpened; her claws have been filed down. They share one last moment, though. As police sirens grow louder, all the animals bow down with Lili and Daniel on the pavement, silently surrendering to the fates they’ve collectively carved. It’s a summit of such epic spiritual and cinematic choreography that we’re tempted to bow along with them.
This was originally published in Word and Film.