Shortly before the bonkers climax of White God, a few impounded dogs alertly watch a Tom and Jerry cartoon called “The Cat Concerto” on a television set in their pen. Tom plunks away at Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, as the dogs sit in rapt attention. It’s a darkly funny moment – especially given the carnage about to ensue – and also a perfect encapsulation of the movie’s aesthetic. A thrillingly wild mixture of high art and low, White God cheekily comments on how we often hide behind civilized culture to mask our basest natures.
How else to describe this troubling, invigorating movie, written and directed by Hungarian filmmaker Kornel Mundruczo? Imagine Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar if it had taken a turn into 28 Days Later. Or Rise of the Planet of the Apes if it had been directed by the Dardenne brothers. Or a rabid Black Beauty. Such is the film’s mixture of terror and transcendentalism, of sentimentality and harshness.
Balthazar is the most obvious influence on White God. As in that 1966 masterpiece, the central relationship here is between a young girl and a beloved animal. Lili (Zsófia Psotta) adores her mixed-breed dog Hagen, but her father feels quite differently. When Lili is sent to live with her father while her mother travels for work, he begrudgingly accepts the dog. After a few incidents, however, he abruptly abandons it on the side of the road. Therein begins Hagen’s harrowing journey to survive dog catchers (mixed breeds are frowned upon, allowing the film to also function as social allegory) and a sadistic dog-napper who trains him for an underground fighting ring. Will Hagen and Lili ever be reunited? And if so, will they still recognize each other?
Wild yet in sync, the dogs are a collective force of nature.
White God cleverly parallels Hagen’s journey with Lili’s, so it works both as a cinéma vérité variation on Homeward Bound and a piercing coming-of-age story. In fact, much of the movie directly equates Hagen with Lili. Her father disciplines her the way one might a dog. The conductor of the youth orchestra for which she plays trumpet makes her stay after class for extra practice – obedience training. If Hagen is continually being “domesticated” against his will, so is Lili. A sequence in which she rebels by attending a party with an older boy in her orchestra is as disconcerting as any of Hagen’s predicaments.
Yet even as this parallel structure decreases the distance between humans and animals (making White God, at its most basic level, a provocative animal rights piece), one of the movie’s startling characteristics is the way it refuses to anthropomorphize its canine characters. Hagen (who is played by two different dogs) has personality, but no more than any dog does. His behavior is never out of character for his species. The same goes for everyone in the animal cast. This lends the movie’s showcase scenes – of up to 250 dogs racing in a pack down the abandoned streets of Budapest – a sense of fearsome wonder. Wild yet in sync, they’re a collective force of nature.
We see this animal mob at the very start of the film, when we’re unsure of what exactly is happening. By the time we return to it in the movie’s climax, we have our bearings enough to appreciate the black wit at play. As the wave of dogs washes through the streets, Mundruczo cuts back and forth between that and Lili’s orchestra concert (of Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, no less). Smugly watching their carefully cultured children perform for them, the adults in the audience are oblivious to the feral force heading their way.
White God eases up on the satire with a détente of sorts in its denouement. I won’t spoil it here, except to say that it involves, appropriately, a stirring moment of submission. And in its perfect final shot, White God offers something truly remarkable: a vision of humanity tamed.