Editor’s note: Our review of White God originally ran during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited release.
Some say the world will end in fire, others say in ice. Honestly, no one even saw the dogs coming.
Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is the child of a broken home who finds solace and consistency in the love of her mutt, Hagen. When she’s passed off to her father (Sándor Zsótér) for the weekend he accepts her but has no such warmth for the dog. He tosses Hagen out on the side of the road leaving the dog and his owner in desperate straits, but the road to reunion is a dangerous one. Hagen is chased, abused, forced to fight and turned into a darker creature than he was, and when the opportunity for escape from the dog pound arises he takes it – and hundreds of his fellow canine inmates follow suit.
White God is a gorgeous film with a simple message. Essentially, we can do better as a species. Director/co-writer Kornél Mundruczó has crafted a beautifully-shot allegory for man’s treatment of the downtrodden, whether they be animals or other men, and while it loses the scent a few times along the way the end result is a thrilling adventure about inter-species awareness. It’s the heartwarming quest for reunion from Homeward Bound meets the flesh-tearing mayhem of Man’s Best Friend, and it’s an incredible journey worth taking.
The film moves back and forth between Lili’s and Hagen’s separate adventures on their way toward a reunion, but they’re not equally valid. The meat of the tale is with the dog as he befriends a small pup and attempts to elude the city workers tasked with cleaning up the streets of homeless canines. This includes a chase sequence worthy of a half dog/half human remake of The Bourne Identity, and yes it is as awesome as that sounds. He’s mistreated by all manner of people including a butcher, a beggar and a man desperate to succeed in the cruel world of dog fighting. That last one trains Hagen to become a fiercer, deadlier animal and even boosts him a bit with an unknown chemical concoction. Turns out that’s a big mistake as for all of his lovable traits Hagen is a dog who holds a grudge.
Happily, for the dog lovers among us, the feels no need to present scenes of cruelty or abuse in anything resembling a graphic way. Even the dog fight is accomplished more through editing than actual confrontation. It’s still convincing enough for the sake of the movie, but viewers should have no qualms over that authenticity.
Less successful are some elements of Lili’s story line. She makes an effort to find Hagen, and we see her attachment to the dog in her attempt to bring him to music class with her, but the film also detours into something of a coming of age narrative for her. It’s an unnecessary distraction that takes us away from the story we actually care about, and it’s the only part of the film that feels like filler. Psotta does an impressive job with her feature debut, but it’s a story for a different film.
There’s a very direct story here about a child and her dog, and it’s there where the film works best even as the action ramps up with the dogs essentially shutting down the city and sending the panicked populace indoors. The bigger story, the allegorical one about humanity’s penchant for taking advantage of the weaker creatures in our way and in our wake, works well enough but occasionally feels a bit too broad.
We’re reminded more than once that the mixed breed mutts are unwanted, and the idea of music soothing the savage beast is made quite literal at one point, but even as the film crosses the line it remains a potent commentary on our treatment and mistreatment of those we see as beneath us. Classical music may be the epitome of our refined sensibilities, but we’re still cruel beasts capable of true barbarity. The message isn’t just aimed at those who commit the acts either as the film makes it very clear that the complacent are just as complicit. First they came for my neighbor’s Shih Tzu and I did nothing…
White God isn’t the canine equivalent of Rise of the Planet of the Apes that some are saying – it’s more localized and less apocalyptic – but it is an engaging tale of reunion, revenge and redemption.
The Upside: Beautiful and striking imagery; powerful moral; brooding, exciting mix of genres; great score
The Downside: Unnecessary detour in human narrative; allegory occasionally too broad
On the Side: The dogs in the film were untrained and living on the street, but after production wrapped the filmmakers found homes for them all.