You will be impressed by all those real dogs in Hungarian Film “White God”, which was chosen as Hungary’s official submission to Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in last year. Used under considerable care and caution during the production, the dogs in the film imbue the movie with a certain amount of raw, brutal power as its allegorical tale runs around different genres along with its canine hero and a young teenager girl who happens to be his owner. Somewhere between “The Incredible Journey” (1963) and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011), the movie is gripping to watch as generating powerful moments during its canine hero’s grim plight, and it strikes a right balance between gritty realism and unabashed melodrama as alternating between its two main characters.
After the visually striking opening scene in which an ominously empty street is suddenly filled with a bunch of running dogs, the movie quickly moves to the point where everything began. Because her professor mother is about to go abroad for a job opportunity with her new husband, Lili (Zsófia Psotta) has to live with her divorced father Dániel (Sándor Zsótér) for a while. Lili and her father, who works as a meat inspector at a local slaughterhouse, are not very close to each other, and their strained relationship is more apparent when he unsuccessfully tries to cheer her up while overlooking how much his daughter has grown up.
Not long after Lili moves into her father’s apartment, she and her father come to conflict with each other over her dear dog Hagen, who is seamlessly played by two dogs named Bodie and Luke. Because Hagen is an unregistered mongrel, Dániel will have to pay the additional tax besides getting a proper license if Hagen keeps being stayed in his apartment, and this petty guy with no love for his daughter’s dog does not want that at all. He would rather send Hagen to animal shelter, and Lili is certainly against that, but there is nothing she can do when Hagen is eventually abandoned on a road by her father.
After this painful moment, the movie sticks to Hagen’s viewpoint as following his harrowing journey around the city. He soon encounters other abandoned dogs in the city, and he quickly learns how to survive in his new environment which is pretty harsh to him as well as other dogs. Although they can get food easily as sniffing around the corners of streets, they are not welcomed much by human beings, and their wasteland lair is often attacked by animal control service guys ready to capture them all.
And then Hagen finds himself tumbled into a more dismal situation when he happens to be taken to a shady broker and then sold to a small-time criminal who tries his luck with dog fighting. Under his new owner’s cruel training process, Hagen begins to be transformed from his former gentle appearance step by step, and Hagen at the final stage of his transformation may remind you of that violent dog in Samuel Fuller’s “White Dog” (1982), a tragic monster irrevocably traumatized by the evil of men.
As soon as he is prepared, Hagen is thrown into a dog fighting as watched by his new owner and others. While making it sure that the dog fighting scene look quite real and vivid on the screen, the director/writer Kornél Mundruczó, who deservedly received Un Certain Regard Award for his film at the Cannes Film Festival in last year, does not go too far with bloody details, and you will be relieved to learn that no dog was harmed during the shooting. There is a brief wordless moment as Hagen looks at his defeated opponent at the end of their savage fight, and I find it more poignant as I reflect on that. Maybe they have no clear idea on why they were put into such a cruel situation like that, but their battered appearances are more than enough to convey to us how much they are crushed by human barbarity. Dogs are the creatures which have been programmed to trust and befriend us through the lucky coincidence of evolution, but, as shown in the film, we human beings frequently betray them as heartlessly pushing them into barbarity with no respect for them.
Meanwhile, the movie also observes Lili’s adolescent struggle on the other side. As being frustrated about her unsuccessful search for Hagen, she comes to have more conflicts with her father, and she even gets herself into a big trouble when she makes an unwise choice of attending a night party where alcohol and drug come handy. Young actress Zsófia Psotta is excellent as a smart girl coping with the emotional tumults inside her, and she is believable in her unadorned performance as her character goes through a rough transition period of her young age along the story. Sándor Zsótér is also good as Lili’s gruff father who has his own emotional problem, and he and Psotta have a touching moment when their characters become a little open to each other later in the story.
The storylines of Hagen and Lili eventually reunite during the climatic third act, where Hagen finally emerges with vengeance as the leader of a massive revolt started at an animal shelter facility. While the frequent use of handheld camera in the film makes some scenes look too shaky in my opinion, this approach works as it lets us immersed into the world viewed through Hagen and other dogs, and the result is all the more commendable considering that the filmmakers had to handle 274 dogs during the production. It goes without saying that Bodie and Luke and other canine actors in the film simply did acts as controlled in front of the camera, but Mundruczó and his crew drew effective performances out of their dogs, and we come to accept them as the characters as real as those vivid CGI ape characters in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. The movie also assures us at the beginning that the dogs got what they deserved for their substantial work: “All of the untrained dogs who perform in this film were rescued from the streets or shelters and placed in homes with help from an adoption program.”
Although it loses its momentum a bit around the finale as if it were not sure about how to end the story after throwing a series of mesmerizing moments at the audiences, “White God” is still a superlative work, and its ending, which could have been quite sappy due to a certain cliché element, resonates with its ambiguously haunting final shot. Sometimes we forget that we are no more than creatures who are just a little smarter than other animals, and the movie makes a good point of that as demanding some respect for dogs – or whatever they represent in the film.