The opening sequences of White God are refreshingly deceptive. When her mother leaves for a three-month stay in Australia, young teen Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is forced to live with her father Dániel (Sándor Zsótér). When he arrives to pick the girl up, it’s apparent that Lili’s parents have gone through a contentious divorce and her dad is somewhat baffled as to how he should deal with his daughter. To make matters worse, Dániel immediately recoils at the sight of Lili’s mixed-breed dog, Hagen, and balks at the idea of having an animal living in his home.
After a fitful first night together, father, daughter and dog get a surprise visit from an animal control officer demanding a “mixed breed” tax be paid for ownership of Hagen. The back-and-forth between Lili and Dániel about the fate of the mutt plays out like any typical family/pet film. Hagen is eventually set out in the world on his own.
And then White God goes darkly weird.
Over the course of the film’s two hours, writer-director Kornél Mundruczó really tells three parallel tales: Lili’s coming-of-age, her search for Hagen and Hagen’s adaptation into his new, ever-changing environment.
Mundruczó’s previous films include 2005’s Johanna and 2010’s Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project. The first is a musical version of the saga of Joan of Arc, the second a loose retelling of Mary Shelley’s protean horror classic. Critics panned both of these films, but the works established a sense of the 40-year-old auteur’s identity as a contemporary fantasist.
With 2014’s White God, Mundruczó garnered his greatest critical success. Last year, the film won the Prize Un Certain Regard at Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award. Perhaps most important, unlike the other two films, White God succeeds in offering an original script without using any source material, threading an increasingly fable-like tale through the backdrop of present-day Hungary.
Like many classic fairytales, White God starts out with a sense of absolutes: Lili’s father, like the rest of the film’s adults, is stern, unsympathetic and even harmful. Animals are inherently good. And children, like 13-year-old Lili, are usually forced to undergo some kind of quest. Yet by the end of the film, Mundruczó disregards these “truths” altogether.
There are dozens of “dog buddy films” in the history of cinema, from the 1957 Disney classic Old Yeller to the putrid Marley & Me (2008). Usually they’re of a predictable genre, i.e., “Benji will catch those bank robbers!” but there have been a few flicks that tweaked the formula. The 1975 cult favorite, A Boy and His Dog, is about Vic (Don Johnson), a teenaged boy and Blood, his telepathic mutt. The pair navigate a post-apocalyptic United States, looking for food and females. Better still, Samuel Fuller’s excellent White Dog (1982) used the genre to question whether racism is hopelessly conditioned or curable through love.
White God takes Fuller’s allegorical stance and asks equally big questions. After Hagen is finally captured by the stormtrooper-like agents of animal control, he winds up in a gulag-like shelter with other “mixed-breed,” outcast breeds. A revolt ensues and some of the film’s more powerful scenes feature dozens of dogs racing through the city, exacting their revenge on the very beings that had first shunned and then imprisoned them. Mundruczó is never heavy-handed with this canine day of reckoning, but he still questions how we treat those we have shunned and makes us wonder if there will be an inevitable atonement for that prejudice.
Mundruczó certainly knows that many who watch his film will have great affection for dogs, so it’s a good thing he never panders to those emotions, since the animals’ affability quickly fades when their own agenda is revealed. As a caveat, there are a few brutal scenes of humans brutally mistreating the animals — difficult to watch.
Coming-of-age tale, adventure film, rumination on human-animal relations … White God attempts to cover a lot of ground in two hours. And it succeeds, showing that new filmmakers can breathe new life into old ideas, while also making a strong case for leash laws.