"White God" *** 1\2 (out of ****)
Budapest has gone to the dogs in Kornel Mundruczo's "White God" (Feher Isten 2014), a half-thriller, half dark (very dark) comedy with a strong social commentary.
This Hungarian film, which is billed as making its U.S. premier as part of the 18th annual European Union Film Festival in Chicago, was a winner at the Cannes Film Festival, receiving the "Un Certain Regard" award for its filmmaker.
The movie opens with a dedication to Miklos Jancso, the brilliant Hungarian filmmaker who was part of the "Hungarian New Wave" of the late 1960s and early 70s, when Hungarian films were being released in America and met with much critical acclaim.
Like a Jancso film, "White God" uses its story as an allegory for something deeper. On its surface "White God" is the Hungarian equivalent of "Lassie Come Home" (1943), the story about a teenage girl, Lili (Zsofia Psotta) and her dog, Hagen (played by two dogs; Body and Luke) with whom she is separated from and the journey the dog must go on to find the young girl. Will the two ever be reunited?
"White God" however goes on to become a story about revolt. The tagline for the movie is "the unwanted will have their day". The "unwanted" it is referring to is not dogs or animals in general. It is referring to the downtrodden; the poor and working class, the homeless. The people society prefer to ignore. Society treats them like animals. If we keep mistreating people one day they aren't going to stand for it. They will become fed up. And when that happens, they will fight back. Remember, there are more poor and working class people in the world than there are rich. Which means, when they do fight back, we will have strength in numbers.
That is what happens in "White God" only it is the dogs which revolt. We see countless humans mistreat animals from Lili's father, Daniel (Sandor Zsoter), who forcefully tells the young girl her dog is not welcome in his home, to a dog fighting promotor, who buys Hagen in the hopes of turning him into a killer.
Using animals as metaphors for humans has been done before in other stories from Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" to Orwell's "Animal Farm" and we have seen animals attack humans in films like Hitchcock's "The Bird" (1963) and to the movie which most people have compared "White God" to, Samuel Fuller's "White Dog" (1982).
One can also interpret "White God" without the subtext and take its plot at face value. It is the story of humans who mistreat animals. In which case the movie also serves as a warning, as does "The Birds", one day human mistreatment of animals will come back to hurt them. We keep training animals to be violent, to serve as protection, and one day the animals will turn on us. Then who will protect us?
Either way you chose to interpret the story the movie is richly executed by Kornel Mundruczo, a filmmaker whose previous film, "Delta" (2008) left me a bit cold though visually it was striking. Here Mundruczo's visual style is on full display and he is working with a story worthy of his detail and attention.
One sequence in particular which is worth mentioning is what appears to be a dream sequence of Lili riding a bicycle on a deserted street. She is riding her bicycle in slow motion. Soon, from behind, we see an army of dogs appear, headed in Lili's direction. Are the dogs about to attack her? Why are the street empty? Why can't she bicycle faster? Mindruczo, through his actor's performances and cinematography, is able to give the sequence an unsettling dream quality.
Despite the dedication to Jancso however, "White Dog" does not share anything in common with the visual style of the films of Miklos Jancso, who was know for extreme long shots, limited camera movement and lack of character point of view.
Critics of "White Dog" have questioned its meaning. If the dogs are to be a metaphor, what do they represent. The answer would seem to be everyone that feels marginalized by society. Some don't like that answer. It cast too wide a net for their cinematic sensibilities. However the movie should resonant with American and European audiences. In Europe we are seeing the rise of right-wing political parties such as UKIP in London and the Jobbik party in Hungary, which have been describe by varies mainstream media outlets as hostile towards minorities and in the case of UKIP have been branded anti-immigration. The same debate is going on in America concerning the border with Mexico and illegal immigration.
"White God" is a confidentially told story by a director with a clear vision and objective. The only wrong step may be an air of satire and dark humor at the end of the picture which becomes repetitive. Mundruczo hits his theme quickly and forcefully.