White God opens with a 13-year old Lili biking down an empty street in Budapest, with 250 stray dogs of all breeds and sizes running after her. It’s easily one of the most captivating scenes in this 121 minutes long Hungarian masterpiece and it’s impossible not to ask oneself at this point whether she’s leading this enormous pack of dogs or is she simply running away from them? However, we don’t get an answer to that until the final third of this spectacular film.
The narrative then jumps back in time to a heartbreaking separation of Lili and her mother, who is about to leave the state with her new partner. Lili, a shy (but confident when she needs to be) pre-teen who plays the trumpet and shares a very special bond with her mixed-breed dog, is therefore supposed to live with her estranged father for the next three months. Which wouldn’t be half as traumatic if the man wouldn’t be a heartless and tortured soul, incapable of feeling any affection or empathy towards an animal. The film doesn’t waste any time telling us that, since we first get introduced to him while he’s working as a meat inspector in the slaughterhouse. There’s one particularly gory scene that makes us fully aware of what kind of a man he is, while also signifying all the brutality and violence that is yet to come. Yes, there’s no doubt, he sees animals as lesser beings whose only purpose is to feed humans. He is as heartless as it gets, and is therefore instantly repulsed by Lili’s adorable pooch Hagen (embodied by two brilliant dogs, Bodie and Luke, who give an award-worthy performances). So no, this is not a Hungarian version of a Disney movie with talking animals getting lost and trying to find their way back to their loving families. These dogs don’t need the ability to talk for us to sympathize with them and to feel sad, angry and repulsed by the human race whenever they get hurt or abused, attacked, caught, sold on the black market or put in the dog fighting ring. They don’t need to act like a person for us to care about them. They’re dogs, living their dog-like everyday life (which is a hellish nightmare that will shake you to the bones) – and it’s exactly this dog’s perspective of our society that makes this film truly remarkable.
And because the story’s set in (a not entirely realistic version of) Hungary that’s enforcing canine racial purity and is therefore requiring a registration of mixed-breed dogs, levying an unreasonably high taxes on their owners (a legislation that was actually proposed in Hungary by one of their Parliament parties, but was thankfully rejected), it’s not long before Hagen gets thrown on the streets of Budapest. Lili, who does everything in her power to keep her friend, is obviously heartbroken. However, this is not her film as the film soon leaves her coming-of-age story by the sidetracks and instead focuses on Hagen’s life on the streets.
So don’t get fooled – this is a full on horror film, mixed with some coming-of-age, fantasy and action elements. There are some wonderful and absolutely thrilling scenes of Hagen running for his life, trying not to get caught by the animal control, that will make you feel as if you’re watching Bourne’s Identity. Hitchcock’s The Birds and Fuller’s White Dog were also apparent sources of inspiration. But what will hit you the most (and quite possibly make you cry) doesn’t have any resemblance to anything you’ve seen on a big screen before. Shot with more than 250 real-life shelter dogs (who got trained for the purpose of this film and were later adopted by members of the crew), this film has the most unique cast you’ll ever come across. The biggest surprise, of course, was Hagen, whose emotional range and Jekyll and Hyde transformation he’s pushed into as the film progresses, was unbelievable and whose performance was absolutely breathtaking (and, indeed, heartbreaking). The dogs were more than deservingly awarded with Palm Dog Award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – and they would probably win an Oscar, too, if a special category for non-human actors existed.
This is a film about the brutality of the human race inflicted upon those without any power to fight back: it’s about oppression of the weak, it’s about imperialism of the White Gods who feel like they’re in charge of the whole universe. The animal shelter, where Hagen’s eventually taken and held captive before the dogs decide to escape and revolt, intentionally looks like a German concentration camp. Which is why there’s never any doubt that the role of Hagen could easily be portrayed by a Hungarian Gypsy, Mexican immigrant, Syrian refugee, incarcerated Afro-American, Turkish Kurd or a Palestinian – it could even be portrayed by the Nature itself. The Nature that is getting sick of how we’re treating her and will soon come to bite us in the ass. Just as the dogs in this wonderful (however difficult to stomach) film decide to bite (or rather, massacre) all the people who abused their power and did them harm.
It therefore comes as no surprise when at one point the dogs decide to break free. It also comes as no surprise that this is not a peaceful revolt: it’s a violent one. The dogs were unwanted, persecuted and tortured for most of their lives. They were essentially locked away into a ghetto of sorts, where they waited for someone to take pity on them or get sentenced to death. When they finally have enough, they respond violently – and reasonably so. There can hardly be any debate who’s the real victim here – the dogs or the people they attack after they decide to take matters into their own hands, after they decide they’ve had enough. This film is able to recognize and address the hypocrisy of a White Man who can do everything unjust and immoral, and yet thinks that nothing similar should ever happen to him. The title White God therefore came from ‘the idea that we are colonizing the whole world without taking on the responsibilities. I felt it was a self-criticism as well. I stood there and I was also a part of the system.’
In the powerful ending scene it is the White Man (Lili’s father) who realizes he won’t make anything better by fighting violence by violence. He lays down in front of the pack, signalling peace, making them aware he’s no longer someone who feels superior to them. At this moment, they’re equal. They’re at peace. And the dogs have (probably for the first time) a chance to be integrated into Hungarian society as people’s friends and companions.
Warning: If you don’t have the stomach to watch animals getting hurt, I would think twice before deciding to watch it. However, let me assure you, no animal was actually harmed during filming (there are some brutal scenes that will make you doubt that, but it’s all due to masterful editing skills!).
There’s also a couple of “Behind the scenes” videos on YouTube if you need to see for yourself how happy the dogs were during filming.
Directed by: Kornél Mundruczó
Written by: Kornél Mundruczó, Viktória Petrányi and Kata Wéber
Starring: Bodie, Luke, Zsófia Psotta and Sándor Zsótér
Running Time: 121 minutes