We tend to see dogs on the big screen in family-oriented films – Toto, Lassie, Beethoven, etc. etc. – more often than not, but this dark fantasy about the relationship between man and man’s supposed best friend is a world away from emotionally-straightforward pap like Marley & Me, Digby or the Air Bud series, bringing to mind films as diverse as Amores Perros, 28 Days Later, The Birds and – oddly enough – Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. (Yes, really.)
White God (the title presumably referencing Sam Fuller’s White Dog) is Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s sixth film, and at times it is quite breathtaking, containing a number of eye-catching shots and sequences. It opens in media res with a scene in which a young girl named Lili (Zsófia Psotta) cycles through the deserted streets of Budapest; there are no pedestrians or cars, just Lili pedalling away on her bike, and then all of a sudden hundreds of stray dogs enter the frame, running and barking and bumping into one another. It raises several questions before the film is a minute old. Why are they chasing her? Why aren’t they locked up in a dog pound? What the hell has happened to this city? Answers are slowly drip-fed for the next two hours as Mundruczó’s film goes back in time to tell the story of Lili’s relationship with her pet Hagen (played in the film by two dogs named Body and Luke); they are cruelly separated when Lili’s father (Sándor Zsótér) abandons the dog to avoid paying certain taxes and the narrative subsequently splits in two, sometimes following Lili as she searches for Hagen or contends with further adult cruelty at her orchestra practice sessions, and sometimes following Hagen as he negotiates life on the street. The former is certainly well-acted, but it’s a fairly standard European city-based family drama, if I’m being perfectly honest. Hagen’s story is by far the more involving here, and in the early stages it features some virtuouso filmmaking as the dog forges a relationship with a fellow canine while avoiding all manner of hazards (an aggressive butcher, city dog pound workers rounding up strays, and so on). Though this may sound a little like the kind of premise you’d find in Disney’s output nothing could be further from the truth, and it’s sad and shocking to watch as Hagen’s suffering worsens and people take advantage of his status as a stray that nobody cares about. Most people’s sympathies will lie with the dog as soon as he is abandoned, if not before, but Mundruczó makes doubly sure by placing the camera down near the ground and cutting in a few point of vierw shots. As such the viewer gets a better handle on the dog’s confusion and fear than might be otherwise expected, for example while watching him attempt something as simple as crossing a road, and it’s easy to get a sense of the dog’s personality at the same time (which gradually changes as his treatment gets worse).
For some quarter-hour periods this is a remarkable film, painting a rather unsympathetic portrait of human beings and criticising the way we generally seem to lord it over animals and make life harder than it should be for them as a result. Mundruczó includes numerous shots of hanging carcasses in abbatoirs, sizzling steaks in a pan and blood-drained cuts piled high in a butcher’s stall, seemingly making a comment about our blasé attitude to meat eating and suggesting that the distance between man and beast is growing, or that we are generally seeing animals as objects for consumption above anything else. It’s notable that the writer-director has chosen the animal that we’re supposedly the closest to, emotionally, in order to make his point; it’s a similar decision to that made a long time ago by a certain Pierre Boulle, who based his Planet Of The Apes story around creatures that shared the closest genetic proximity to humans. Indeed the Orwellian final act here occupies the same territory as Rupert Wyatt’s recent Apes reboot Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, though there’s only a fleeting whiff of an action spectacular unexpectedly usurping the European arthouse stylings. I’m unsure as to whether the Hungarian would balk at that association, but it’s hard no to recall Wyatt’s simian assault on the Golden Gate Bridge during some scenes here, even though they play out on a much smaller scale. The director may be happier with a Hitchcock comparison, and there are several scenes here that (deliberately) recall the panic and terror of the Bodega Bay assault of The Birds, even though White God is a very different kind of film. Worth seeing, and due credit to the handlers, who worked with over 240 different dogs during the shoot.
Directed by: Kornél Mundruczó.
Written by: Kornél Mundruczó, Viktória Petrányi, Kata Wéber.
Starring: Zsófia Psotta, Body, Luke (dogs), Sándor Zsótér, Szabolcs Thuróczy.
Cinematography: Marcell Rév.
Editing: Dávid Jancsó.
Music: Asher Goldschmidt.
Running Time: 120 minutes.