Drop what you’re doing and watch White God (2015), Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó’s Orwellian parable about a pack of enslaved dogs that revolt against their human masters. This unrivaled masterpiece is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long, long time.
When the film opens, Young Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is separated from her dog Hagen after her father Dániel (Sándor Zsóter) leaves it on the side of the road. The Hungarian government deems the dog “unfit” for society because it is mixed-breed, and Dániel gets rid of it so he doesn’t have to deal with the punishment. Lili is too young to understand, and she blames her father.
Lily struggles to cope with Hagen’s absence. She doesn’t have other friends, and as hard as she tries to focus on her participation in a prestigious orchestra, she constantly worries about her lost companion. In one scene, she wanders the streets in a desperate search for Hagen. In another scene, she passes the time at a party, appearing bored and disillusioned with it all. She aches for purpose, and for a brief period of time, Hagen provided it to her.
Meanwhile, Hagen stumbles upon all the other “unfit” stray dogs and they form an alliance. What happens to them is sickening. These poor dogs are captured and essentially sold into dog slavery. They are subjected to torture and brutalized by their masters. There’s only so much pain that a dog can tolerate, and soon enough, Hagen’s bark is back. This is a powerful, inspiring cinematic moment, not unlike the “I am Spartacus!” scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 historical epic. From here on, it’s much harder for the humans to mess with these mutts.
I assumed that the hundreds of dogs that fill the screen are computer-generated. I was wrong. Miraculously, Mundruczó managed to train real stray dogs for the film. This is made clear in an informative interview with animal coordinator/technical adviser Theresa Ann Miller, as well as a fascinating behind-the-scenes featurette, both of which are included in the bonus features. For this reason alone, every moviegoer should see White God. Unlike the lazy Hollywood filmmakers who overuse computer-generated imagery, Mundruczó is the real deal. None of the dogs were harmed during the shoot, and if ever an animal rights disclosure was necessary, it would be for this gut-wrenching film about animal cruelty.
Like Joon-ho Bong’s monster movie The Host (2006), White God is a hybrid of genres. Co-written by Mundruczó, Viktória Petrányi, and Kata Wéber, the film starts off as a coming-of-age story, and then transforms into a slasher film. It’s a political allegory, a family melodrama, and a good old-fashioned monster movie. Given all of these different genres, it’s impressive that Psotta’s natural performance grounds the film in reality. Even though the film takes place in an alternate Hungary, the weary look in Psotta’s eyes makes us believe in this fictional world. In her first film, Psotta carries the film with a heartbreaking performance.
When we put the genre conventions aside, White God tells a fairly universal story about the ties that bind us, and the forces that try to tear them apart. Circumstances separate Lily and Hagen for most of the film, but it’s clear that their bond can never be broken. As strange as it may seem, the relationship between Lily and Hagen is a testament to the enduring power of love in a hellish society.
Marcell Rév’s cinematography effectively captures the gritty Hungarian streets. Every now and then, the action will slow down, and we’re left in awe of the breathtaking images of these beautiful beaten dogs as they roam the deserted streets. Márton Ágh’s production design and Panni Lutter’s set decoration significantly enhance the environment. The film’s evocative milieu is at once melancholy and menacing, and Mundruczó and his collaborators rely on visual simplicity to convey it.
Dávid Jancsó’s editing maintains a gripping pace for two hours. There isn’t a dull or wasted moment to be found. However, this emotionally intense film isn’t for everyone. The disturbing images of animal cruelty are bound to turn some viewers off, and even though the ideas about enslavement, rebellion, and retribution are worthy of contemplation, they’re presented in a visceral way that shocks the senses. Marley & Me (2008), this is not.
And yet, as challenging as the film can be, I can’t imagine any serious moviegoer not responding to Mundruczó’s bold vision. In countries all over the world, people are controlled by their governments, or by radical militant groups that have overthrown their governments. Mundruczó gets this, and in response, he has made a film that asks a simple question: Who among us will rise up and become the “white god” who bites back?
In addition to the bonus features about the film’s complicated production, there is an insightful 14-minute interview with Mundruczó about his artistic intentions. He answers questions about the meaning of the film’s title, his specific use of mix-breed dogs, his disapproval of CGI, and his newfound passion for animal rights activism. He denies any accusations that the dogs were mistreated on his film set, and says in response, “I believe in equality between humans and animals.”