Dog on our side
A Hungarian-produced dog-centered parable of human oppression
White God begins with a kid on a bike. She’s traveling alone, pedaling past abandoned vehicles on the gloomy concrete thoroughfares of a strangely depopulated metropolis. Somewhere behind her, as we soon see, a huge pack of dogs is racing through those same streets, and it looks like they’re gaining on her. Those beginning images won’t get explained until much later in the story, but they are emblematic for the film as a whole.
The girl is 13-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta), who has run away, for very good reasons, from her broken family. She will emerge as the human protagonist in a film otherwise distinguished by its canine characters. And the most prominent of the latter is Lili’s beloved Hagen, a zesty mongrel who just might be the movie’s truest hero (as well as the key figure in the various hints of political subtext).
Part of the distinction of White God, which is a Hungarian production, is that it builds a powerful, Planet of the Apes-like parable out of that youngster’s search for her dog—or rather their searches for each other. Lili is shunted aside and neglected by both of her self-preoccupied parents (no surprise that they’re divorced). Hagen is literally discarded by Lili’s parents, and then treated to escalating bouts of abusive treatment as he is passed among scavengers, dealers and guard-dog trainers.
Whatever the parallels in their respective journeys, there is no Disney-style sentimentality in play here. The emotional bond between the girl and the dog feels genuine, but there’s no attempt to “humanize” Hagen. Lili is quite “humane,” but as the film’s astonishing final image makes spectacularly evident, Lili and the film have great reverence for the canine perspective.
Hagen is played by two dog brothers (identified in the credits as Luke and Bodie). Director Kornél Mundruczó reportedly had a cast of 250 trained dogs on hand for the movie’s very impressive action scenes, and part of the film’s surprising power comes from its apparent aversion to computer-generated special effects.
The movie has an R rating, and it should be noted that there is some (presumably staged) gore in the scenes of abuse. But the starkest and most direct instances of that kind of imagery are mostly confined to a brief early sequence in a meat-packing plant.