White God (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is to live with her father, Daniel (Sándor Zsótér), for a few weeks while her mother goes abroad. The arrangement is not a problem except for the fact that Lili’s dog, Hagen, is to stay in Daniel’s flat as well—which is a problem because the apartment complex has a new strict rule about dogs, one that Daniel initiated. After a series of frustrations, Lili’s father, a short-tempered man who is very strict about abiding by rules, decides to leave Hagen in the middle of the city to fend for itself.
“White God,” written and directed by Kornél Mundruczó, is quite a unique and surprising film because even though the story revolves around a girl and her dog, it is unafraid to explore dark subjects like animal cruelty and how we as a species impose authority on others. In fact, it is so bold at times that the final thirty minutes or so almost becomes a horror picture—which I considered to be a problem because it is so extreme. As a result, the subtler messages are lost. We are likely to remember the violence instead of the lessons and beautiful images it imparts.
It snags our attention and piques our curiosities right from the open scene. The usually crowded streets and highways of Budapest are completely empty and silent. We are immediately engaged because we sense that something is very wrong. We see a girl riding her bike. Perhaps she knows there is danger, too. Then from behind we see a horde of canines, possibly rabid, chasing her. It is unlikely she is able to stay ahead of the pack for long.
Psotta is a solid choice to play the owner of the mixed breed dog. There is something earthy, honest, and tough about her. Because of these qualities, it is easy to establish a connection between us and the character. The manner in which the performer handles the dog is quite convincing, too. Right away we believe that they have been together for years and so when taken away from one another, there is a genuine, complex drama that can be felt through the screen as opposed to simply watching a sad situation being presented.
The picture is at its best when simply showing the life of a street dog in Budapest. I was amazed by how transfixed I was at the screen when no words are uttered, just a series of dangerous situations, whether it be in the hands of humans or the paws of fellow canines, that the abandoned dog goes through. Tension is consistently increased because with each challenge, something about the dog changes. In order to survive, he has no choice but to turn from a docile pet to a wild animal in a span of a few weeks.
The last thirty minutes involving the swarm of dogs terrorizing the city is a mixed bag. At times the attacks are comedic and there are moments when they are deadly serious. Although I enjoyed—somewhat—the drastic change of tone from one scene to the next, I was at a loss when it came to what the writer-director wished to convey.
It is apparent that a hundred dogs are likely never to team up over the span of several hours or days and kill people in reality so one can argue that it works as a fable. But what is the point of verging into horror-comedy? If done for the sake of entertainment, the approach distracts rather than matching the film’s overarching tone.
Despite this limitation and a running time that wears out its welcome, “Fehér isten” is worth seeing. One cannot help but wonder how the filmmakers and crew not only managed to control the dogs but actually get them to do what is needed in a particular scene. There are things in this film that no amount of movie magic can accomplish convincingly but those that require good old-fashioned training as well as painstaking trial and error.