White God / Fehér isten (2014)

White God

Fierce and unflinchingly brutal, Kornél Mundruczó’s White God is an unsettling Hungarian allegory brimming with passion, imagination and socio-political resonance.

White God

The Dog Days Are Over

by Dave O'Flanagan

Recent scientific studies equate a dog’s ability to apply reasoning to that of a toddler. In terms of emotional intelligence and memory, these studies have also indicated that after over 15,000 years together, our canine companions are much smarter than we give them credit for. Where a toddler revolt wouldn’t have quite the same visceral impact, director Kornél Mundruczó’s film presents a world in which man’s best friend stages a surreal uprising. Symbolising the disenfranchised and oppressed of modern society, White God posits that every dog does indeed have its day. Winners of the ‘Palm Dog’ (no, seriously) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the canine cast are wrangled to perfection, delivering a meaningful and moving ensemble performance. What could loosely be described as a brutal, apocalyptic, David Fincher-style Homeward Bound; White God is a unique and compelling film.

Thirteen-year-old Lili’s (Zsófia Psotta) best friend and confidante is her mixed-breed dog, Hagen. When Lili spends the weekend with her father (Sándor Zsótér), his refusal to live with a dog as well as a harsh government-imposed “mongrel” fine, results in him abandoning the dog. Determined to be reunited with his owner, Hagen embarks on a quest that sparks a canine revolt where the abused retaliate on their human abusers.

Provocative and awe-inspiring, the canine revolt pouring through the streets of Budapest in White God’s opening scene is genuinely startling. Expertly framed and captured by Mundruczó and cinematographer Marcell Rév’s cameras, they utilise a smorgasbord of shots; from front, back, top-down and POV shots to sweeping dolly shots of human protagonist, Lili, cycling through the deserted city streets. Reminiscent of the nightmarish delusions of former IDF soldier Boaz in Avi Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, these dogs aren’t animated or imagined, they are a Darwinian nightmare in the flesh and fur. Leader from the front and centre is pack leader, Hagen (played by Body the dog), who delivers a screen performance of significant merit. Rarely has there been such an accomplished, emotional and convincing performance from an animal on film. In this regard, White God often plays like a silent film, with nods, head tilts, yelps and gestures from the dogs the only audible sounds on screen.

Behind every great dog performer is an even better dog wrangler, and animal trainer Árpád Halász and animal department coordinator Teresa Ann Miller deserve a huge amount of praise for wrangling such convincing performances from over 280 dogs. It’s in Hagen’s subtle and deliberate gestures that the filmmaker’s achievements are most notable. There’s a remarkable scene in which Lili’s music recital is besieged by Hagen and his army of dogs, the rousing music soars and swells as the reality of the canine uprising becomes apparent to the masses. Exploring themes of institutional abuse and torture, many of the scenes leading up to this are incredibly difficult to stomach. Initially taken in by a dog fighting ring, Hagen is subjected to a cruel training regime which culminates in an unbearably vicious dog fight. While Mundruczó cuts away from the most abhorrent violence, there’s enough brutality in here to put the most resolute and hardened viewers off their popcorn – you have been warned.

Despite the ingenuity of the canine narrative, the humans of the film are underserved by the script. Lili and her father, Daniel, are the two most prominent characters outside of Hagen, and it’s too easy to root for the canine uprising with these rather dull and unlikeable characters as alternatives. That’s not to say that these are poor performances by any means; Zsófia Psotta is strong and likeable as Lili, and Zsótér enjoys a winning change of heart that hints at depth to his character mid-way through proceedings. With Daniel revealing a softer more emotional side to his daughter, the film finally injects some conflict in conscience for the audience – previously conditioned to see the cruelty of humanity, to celebrate Hagen’s defiance in challenging the hierarchy. With Hagen’s transformation from loyal house dog to fearless leader, you are left to ponder how much of his soul remains intact, the vicious and snarling Hagen is a shadow of his former self.

First and foremost, White God is a very strong, impassioned political statement; its message to the hierarchy that the voiceless masses are unified through disenfranchisement and oppression. The message is that the status quo only exists as long as the machinations of oppression are unchallenged. In Hagen, the downtrodden have a voice, a leader, and once the dogs of war have been slipped, the revolution begins in earnest. White God is an unusual film – not everybody will get behind emotionally intelligent dogs as easy as they can behind rebellious talking apes. In that refusal or reluctance to engage imagination, to deny plausibility, many of the audience symbolise the hierarchy, the powers that be, refusing to acknowledge the winds of change. And to quote the film’s tagline; the unwanted will have their day.

White God is released on 27th February 2015 in the UK

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