Directed by: Kornél Mundruczó.
Written by: Kornél Mundruczó & Viktória Petrányi & Kata Wéber.
Starring: Zsófia Psotta (Lili), Sándor Zsótér (Dániel), Lili Horváth (Elza), Szabolcs Thuróczy (Old man), Lili Monori (Bev), Gergely Bánki (Dog-catcher), Tamás Polgár (Dog-catcher).
If White God wasn’t as brutally violent a movie as it is, it would be a suitable movie for children. It is in many ways, not unlike a fairy tale – and its ultimate message is both very broad and very obvious – and is basically that those on top shouldn’t treat those underneath like dogs. The fact that the movie uses actual dogs to make this point makes it even more obvious. However, even if the political “subtext” doesn’t really hit as hard as director Kornel Mundruczo would like it to, that hardly effects the movie at all – which is violent, quickly paced, entertaining, and at times jaw dropping in what precisely they get these dogs to do. It also contains one of the greatest canine performances ever (two actually, since two dogs were used) – as the main character emerges of Hagen, a dog leader that rivals Caesar from the recent Planet of the Apes movies – but more impressive, since it’s not Andy Serkis.
The lead human character in the movie is Lili (Zsófia Psotta), a teenage girl whose mother and stepfather are heading off to some sort of three month long conference (no, it makes no sense, but the movie needs to get rid of them), so she has to go and live with her distant, somewhat cruel father Daniel (Sándor Zsótér), along with her beloved dog Hagen. The problem is that Hagen is a “mixed breed” dog – which requires an additional tax be paid – and Daniel will be damned if he’s goes to for his ex-wife’s dog. So, he kicks Hagen out into the streets – and while Lili vows to find him, she is also a typical teenager, and gets drawn into her own drama. Meanwhile Hagen gets to know the rest of humanity aside from Lili – and like Balthazar, the donkey in Robert Bresson’s masterpiece Au Hazard Balthazar (1966) finds that there is little out there except for cruelty. Unlike Bresson’s donkey – who gets his “happy” ending when he sits down to die, Hagen decides to fight back – and does so in the bloodiest way imaginable.
White God touches on many different genres throughout its two hour runtime. It is a fairy tale, with a message so simple that it wouldn’t be out of place in a children’s movie. It also has elements of a horror movie – particularly in the last act, when Hagen goes out to get revenge on all the humans have been cruel to him – stalking them, before killing them in brutally violent ways. It is also a domestic drama, with Lili taking steps towards teenage rebellion – and yet also becoming closer to her father, who becomes more sympathetic as the movie goes along.
The human half of White God is fine, if a fairly typical coming of age family drama. It’s the dog half – the woman that hardly ever leaves Hagen’s side that makes White God as good as it is. Part of that is the rather astonishing performance by the two American dogs playing Hagen. Of course, the credit belongs to the director, who was able to find ways to make the dog’s face express many different types of emotion (none more so than sadness, especially in a scene after a dog fight when he realizes what he has done). Mundruczó also does amazing things with the large group of dogs who swarm near the end. It is truly amazing stuff.
White God is an uneven movie to be sure – and its political message doesn’t really work. It’s such a broad message, and it falls apart when you look at it too closely, because it doesn’t find anything specific to ground itself in. Still, White God is still a very good movie – scary and intense and an amazing achievement – truly, you may never see better dog acting than in White God, and that by itself, makes it worth seeing.