Somewhere between the future shock allegories of the ’70s and their TV spin-offs circa The ABC Movie of the Week lies White God. On the surface, it’s the story of an animal uprising. Dig a little bit deeper and suddenly a whole new perspective is uncovered. Via innuendo and allusion, suggestion and specifics, Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó offers up an intriguing take on Establishment control, minority oppression, and the sources of revolution. Of course, all of this comes courtesy of a group of mongrels who literally steal the movie away from its human counterparts, showing a complexity of character that sells even the silliest ideas.
As part of an ambiguous shape of things to come, mixed breed dogs are outlawed by the Hungarian government. Owners are required to either pay a licensing fine, or give up the animal. Into this reality comes Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her beloved pet Hagen. She is being shipped off to live with her father for three months while her mother travels to Australia with her new husband.
Dad lays down the law, but Lili doesn’t care. When confronted with the issues surrounding Hagen, he simply abandons the animal in the street. Desperate to reconnect with his owner, Hagen travels from homeless compounds to dog fighting rings, eventually ending up in a local shelter. There, our canine hero leads a rebellion, with the human race in his angry, aggressive sights.
Starting with a sensational opening shot that sets up the eventual man vs. beast finale, White God (which, cleverly, references both the political subtext of the film as well as the like-minded Sam Peckinpah effort White Dog) plays like a Wonderful World of Disney drama gone gangrenous. Sure, the House of Mouse wasn’t beyond putting our four legged friends in harm’s way, but their Incredible Journeys never ended in a bloody canine revolt. This is the kind of film PETA would both protest and publicize, a depressing look at how man treats his surroundings while simultaneously suggesting even more caution with our critters.
This is not a perfect film. Mundruczo, working with real, non-CG dogs, can only do so much with his mostly untrained talent. So the story constantly returns to Lili, her teenage angst, her insubordinate rejection of her dad’s dour existence, and the elements that make her an outsider among her peers. We know the plot will push her towards a reunion with Hagen (we’ve already seen it in the opening), but how we get there is a bit uneven. Also, as metaphors go, man’s exploitation of his environment (and the repercussions from same) are as hackneyed as Bert I. Gordon’s drive-in giant insects.
Luckily, this is a filmmaker skilled at overcoming such obstacles. The sequences with Hagen on his own, discovering the horrors of being a stray in a non-stray land, are particularly potent. They can be very tough to watch, and even with a “no animals were harmed” warning in the credits, it’s hard to believe that all the four-legged participants here came out unscathed. As with most of the movie, however, the real tragedies are more implied than illustrated, and when added together with the message being forwarded, turns White God into the kind of movie that wins awards (it won the Prize Un Certain Regard at last year’s Cannes Film Festival).
Still, there’s a nagging part of White God which feels like so much sci-fi schlock cheese. It’s not enough to ruin the film or the experience, but it does dampen what is otherwise a fine bit of worrisome “what if?” Mundruczo’s ace up his sleeve is the depressing Eastern European setting. Within such a seesaw backdrop of ancient architecture and modern tech travesties, one can easily see a mutt mutiny occurring. Transfer things to middle America and… it’s just not the same. There really is much more to White God than its obvious pro-paws agenda, but said message is equally effective, and entertaining.