For those who love both movies and animals, “White God” presents something of a conundrum.
By Noah Gittell
For those who love both movies and animals, “White God” presents something of a conundrum. On the one hand, the new Hungarian film by Kornél Mundruczó is a powerful work of activism on behalf of animals that suffer from human cruelty. Its tale of a stray dog revolution on the streets of Budapest is provocative in all the best ways. Further, the film used more than 250 real stray or shelter dogs, all of which were adopted into loving homes after the production (if the on-screen disclaimer can be believed). And yet the canine characters endure such horrible onscreen cruelty that it may make the very audience members who would be most sympathetic to the film’s message sick to their stomachs. As a companion to four dogs, I might have walked out of the screening if not for my professional obligations.
But I’m glad I didn’t, because “White God,” if nothing else, provokes necessary conversations about the evolving human-animal relationship. It does this through a clever use and subversion of genre; at heart, “White God” is a revenge movie against the whole human race.
Here is the set-up: Ellie, a young girl in Budapest, goes to live with her father for the summer, while her mother is out of the country on work. Like many children of divorce, she loves her dog and insists on bringing him along, much to her father’s dismay. The father-daughter relationship is strained from the start, and it only gets worse: When he learns of a new fee instituted by the city for all mixed-breed dogs, he cruelly abandons the dog in the city rather than pay it. While Ellie sneaks off to find him, Hagen the dog takes over as the film’s protagonist, and we watch in horror as tries to navigate urban life as a stray.
Early on, life on the streets isn’t so bad. Hagen makes friends with another stray (an adorable Jack Russell) who teaches him the ropes. He learns to forage for food. Amazingly, Mundruczó moves the plot forward without the use of CGI or subtitles to translate the dogs’ thoughts. Working with expert trainers, he manages to capture the inner lives of his animal actors in a way that transcends the artifice of something like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which relied heavily on motion-captured human performances. In these early scenes, ”White God” plays like a terrific silent film.
From these early scenes, you get the feeling that Hagen could easily survive on his own, if it were not for the cruelty of man. He narrowly escapes the relentless dogcatchers before being kidnapped by a homeless man and sold into a dogfighting ring. The scenes inside the ring are important: While the dogfighting subculture has become more public in the last few years, few of us have seen inside their operations, and “White God” shows us all the horrid details. Hagen is drugged, tortured, and eventually set upon another dog, which he fights to the death. It is difficult to watch, even with the onscreen disclaimer that opens the film assuring the audience that none of the dogs used in the film were hurt.
Some audience members will abandon the film at this point, which is understandable, but they will miss the thrilling and thought-provoking third act, in which Hagen escapes from a shelter and leads his fellow dogs in violent revolution against their humor oppressors. At first, it’s cathartic; human characters who treat Hagen cruelly earlier in the film get their comeuppance. But like all revenge films, “White God” eventually questions the costs of fighting violence with violence, and as the dogs’ rampage turns deadly for both humans and canines, Mundruczó uses horror film conventions – jump cuts and a piercing musical score – to make us grapple with our sympathies. Are these murderous dogs the heroes or the villains?
The film’s complicated but well-earned message is that systematic violence against any marginalized population will only lead to more violence, and the story appropriately ends on a note of ambiguity concerning the future of the human-animal relationship. That’s not the message we are used to getting from an animal film, but it’s the right one for our moment.
My Rating: See it in the Theater