WHITE GOD (2014) review
written by: Kornél Mundruczó, Viktória Petrányi and Kata Wéber
produced by: Viktória Petrányi and Eszter Gyárfás
directed by: Kornél Mundruczó
rating: R (for violent content including bloody images, and language)
runtime: 121 min.
U.S. release date: January 23, 2015 (Sundance) & March 27, 2015 (limited)
Mean people suck. Dogs are people too. Those were two familiar quotes that rang through my mind after my initial viewing of “White God”, or “Feher Isten”, the Hungarian film directed by Kornél Mundruczó, a difficult and challenging yet potent film to watch. It’s very hard to watch especially if you’re a dog lover, but even if you’re not, it will stir something in you. There can be just as many interpretations of the title (and ironically is not a play on Samuel Fuller’s 1982 anti-racist film “White Dog”) as there are metaphors in “White God”, but that all depends on what the viewers glean from the film. While I remain impressed with the film on many levels and, at this time, it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year – I just don’t know how many times I’ll be able to watch it.
Reluctant thirteen-year-old, Lili (Zsófia Psotta, in her impressive acting debut), is handed off to her estranged father, Daniel (Sándor Zsótér, in her acting debut) in Budapest by her mother (Lili Horváth) for three months when her work sends her to Australia for three months. She drops her daughter of stating, “three months is nothing”, but we know what that length of time means to a teen and it seems obvious that she has suffered the most from her parent’s divorce. Lili brings her mixed-breed dog, Hagen (played by twins, Bodie Miller and Luke Miller), which immediately becomes a source of contention between her she and father. Daniel could care less for Hagen (pronounced Hah-gin) even if the dog means the world to Lili.
When a nosy neighbor (Erika Bodnár) in Daniel’s apartment complex makes an erroneous report that a mutt bit her, he is visited by animal control and told there is a mandatory fee for mixed-breeds. Frustrated by what he considers an inconvenience, Daniel is set on handing Hagen over to a local shelter, but Lili emphatically refuses, which results in Daniel harshly tossing Hegen out of his car and onto the streets. While Lili is in the car, even – setting any parent/teen rapport back.
With our protagonists split apart, director Kornél Mundruczó, who co-wrote “White God” with Viktória Petrányi and Kata Wéber, focuses on how the separation affects them, what they experience and how they deal with the sudden change in their lives. Lili now has even more disdain for a father who has no clue how to communicate with a young teen and she becomes even more distant as her concern for Hagen increases. She posts “lost dog” flyers and rides around town her bike searching for Hagen, yet to no avail. She starts to become self-destructive, hanging with an older crowd she’s probably too young for.
Meanwhile, Hagen has to navigate his way through life amongst the stray dogs on the streets. It’s a subculture the loyal, tender-hearted dog isn’t used to. While searching for scraps of food in the back alley of meat shop, he encounters a cruel butcher and a kind Jack Russell terrier. That little dog becomes something of a guide for Hagen as he maneuvers his way under viaducts and reservoirs and escaping the grasp of animal control workers. While Lili is hopeful that her searches and primarily her love for her companion will reunite them, Hagen’s hopes of finding Lili again seem to be squashed as he falls into one unfortunate human encounter after another. He’s captured by a homeless man, who sells him off to a brutal dogfight trainer, who then drugs and beats him into submission, rewiring the dog’s nature disposition.
Days and weeks go by and it becomes clear that Hagen is no longer the sweet and loyal companion who was once by Lili’s side. While she is still troubled by his absence, she does her best to carry on as she continues her orchestra rehearsals in hopes of moving on. Unfortunately, Hagen has it far worse. Having escaped from the dog fighting circuit, he is soon captured and sent to the animal pound, joining other captured dogs. Distrusting of all humans, Hagen winds up leading a revolt against his captors, violently unleashing hundreds of dogs upon any humans they encounter in the city. The result is an all-out war in which the oppressed species literally lash out at humanity – who had claimed superiority over them for years – and now it may be too late for Lili to step in and calm the dangerous atmosphere Hagen has started.
None of the adults in “White God” that Lili and Hagen interact with are sympathetic toward the two protagonists. We conclude that Daniel is a former professor who now works as a meat inspector at a slaughterhouse. It doesn’t seem to be a job he’s passionate about – methodical, yes – but his heart just isn’t in it. Somewhere between that and his divorce lies the source of his misery as evidenced in his impatience and lack of empathy toward his daughter. Lili does fare better than Hagen, but there is not one adult, especially not her arrogant orchestra conductor (László Gálffi), who gives Lili a break. Sure, she’s got a mouth on her, but considering how she’s been bounced around by her parents and treated with mostly disdain by her peers, it’s really no surprise.
There is one other person who eventually treats Lili with some respect – an older boy that she winds up hanging out with for a short time. I say ‘eventually’ because even he winds up using her which results in Lili getting apprehended by the police.
Still, what will be seared in the audience’s memory is how humans treat Hagen, as well as all the other dogs and really, every animal in “White God”. It’s a challenging movie to watch – from the graphic slaughterhouse scene (that should turn you into a vegetarian) in the beginning – to the bloody canine revolt in the film’s third act, which resembles Hitchcock’s “The Birds” or, more recently “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, there are definitely hard scenes to watch as we are reminded what kind of value humans place on animals. There are heightened moments during that revolt that play like a straight-up revenge fantasy, like a “Death Wish” for dogs, which kind of takes us out of the artful, documentary-like approach the film has, but it worked for me. Even though it makes one wonder about Hagen’s uncanny sense of direction and does play to a certain trope of certain characters getting what they deserve, when we consider what part each character has played in maintaining a complete disregard for the lives of dogs, such comeuppance is easier to accept.
The success of this kind of film, which so heavily relies on a naturalistic and raw point of view from dogs, really comes down to excellent editing (by Dávid Jancsó) and fine-tuned sound design (by Thomas Huhn and Gábor Balázs). Director Mundruczó used over 250 animal shelter dogs, primarily from the States – no CGI! – and had to adhere to the U.S. Guide to Animal Treatment instructions in regards to the care, training and direction of the dogs. So, when we see vicious dog fights and bloody attacks, it really comes down to what we see and hear to convince us, to invest us, in the intensity of the moment. To me, that comes down to amazing trainers (every dog you see on-screen had one) and what can be accomplished in editing and sound design.
Another success to consider is the use of music in “White God”, along with the excellent cinematography, both provided by two considerably young talents. Composer Asher Goldschmidt uses intense orchestration to propel building suspense, but there is a contemplative theme which he infuses throughout that burrows into our subconscious. There is also the choice to use iterations of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, even employing the use of the 1947 Tom & Jerry short “The Cat Concerto” to inject a bit of ironic humor. Marcell Rév, the film’s cinematographer, utilizes light and color in a stark and rich manner, but most impressive is how the camera simply follows the dogs, capturing their behavior and response what they see and experience. Rév captures the sound and vision of Hagen’s discovery in beautiful ways, like a scene where he crosses over the Danube on a bridge, startled by the tooting of the boats below. That’s one scene in particular, but there are other memorable scenes that follow Hagen after he is just released onto the streets and the standout of those scenes are the film’s soundtrack and cinematography.
Mundruczó has said that he used dogs in “White God” to replace minorities or any people who are oppressed for their race, economic or social status. While we’re aware of reports of dogs being abused and mistreated, such a metaphor is easy to see here and is actual handled with a subtler hand than Neil Blomkamp did in “District 9” – at least in the film’s first half. Certainly using a helpless species that is so beloved as a pet is a way in which to immediately connect to the audience as well as elicit specific reactions from them – as witnessed by several walkouts at the theater where I saw the film.
The director opens his film using the epigram, “Everything terrible is something that needs out love”, from Rainer Maria Rilke and in a time where we vilify and lob heavy amounts of collective vitriol toward what we consider to be “evil people” – (insert any terrorist or murderer) there are questions that are rarely offered, like “how was that person made?” and “what led to this?” Those questions are answered in detailed and extreme ways in “White God”, proving there is more to take away from a film than just the surreal and challenging images we see. I definitely never expected to find some of the best acting of the year to come from dogs.