Note: This review was originally published back in January 2015 as part of our coverage for the Sundance Film Festival.
White God could have been a disaster in the hands of a director other than Kornél Mundruczó. Hell, it should have been a disaster. The basic pitch: The Adventures of Milo and Otis marries the film Wendy & Lucy, which then gives birth to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and it all takes place in Hungary. Are you laughing yet? Why not? It sounds ridiculous and over the top. Based solely on its premise, it would be perfectly understandable to lump it in with the Sharknados and Sharktopusses of basic cable, screening it at midnight movies years from now when it gains a cult following.
Fortunately for us, White God defies the odds, wins over the skeptics, and takes us through the twists and turns of its Hungarian streets on a journey that has us tearing up, laughing, cheering, and sitting in emotional exhaustion well before its two-hour runtime comes to a close. It’s a story of a young girl who gets separated from her dog, but it’s also a story of resilience, evil, and ultimately a loss of innocence. There are certain actions we take in life that we can never truly come back from. White God captures all of this beautifully, albeit fantastically.
The story begins on an empty Hungarian bridge. Young Lili (Zsófia Psotta) rides her bike across, passing only a single abandoned car. There isn’t a human in sight. Shortly after entering the neighborhood, hundreds of dogs appear from a cross street and begin chasing after her. The title card hits the screen, and before we can take in what we’re seeing, the film cuts to Lili in the backseat of her parents’ car — her dog, Hagen, resting beside her. Was the opening sequence a dream or a fully-realized analogy for an event to come? As White God progresses, it becomes apparent that predicting its future is a futile effort.
Lili is about to be dropped off with her elderly father for three months and attend a music program. She brings Hagen along to stay with her, but her father is immediately angry with this surprise guest. Shortly after arriving back at his apartment, we learn that in Hungary mixed-breed dogs must be reported to the appropriate authorities and are frowned upon in general. This has all the makings of a ham-fisted racial analogy, but it never drives directly into that arena. The rules of the land merely trigger the action that follows.
After Lili runs away from home with Hagen in tow, her father finds her and makes her choose between taking Hagen to the animal shelter or abandoning him on the streets. She knows what will happen to the dog if he’s taken to a shelter, and she refuses to make a decision. Her father chooses for her, and after he removes Hagen from the car, he drives away as his daughter screams for her dog from the backseat. Hagen runs after them before finally giving up. Mundruczó films this sequence from different angles, but the most devastating comes from beside Lili in the backseat, having to witness her dog drifting further and further away.
Hagen learns to survive on his own for a spell, evading dog catchers in action sequences that are closer in spirit to any Bourne or Bond movie than Benji. Again, it’s a testament to Mundruczó that we never roll our eyes at either his direction or Hagen’s actions. The dog is loveable, and we are rooting for him from the moment he hits the screen. Once he’s separated from his beloved master, we long for them to be reunited. Nothing in life is so simple, and White God isn’t interested in attempting to make it so.
Once we enter the world of dog fighting, the film becomes difficult to watch. Having to watch what Hagen goes through over the course of a few weeks would soften the hardest of hearts. His new life is intercut with Lili, who is struggling to adjust to life without her dog. She acts out in class, starts drinking, and is even arrested. Though Hagen’s life has been dangerously affected much more so than his master’s, Lili’s is entering a dangerous zone.
Where both storylines end up may not be totally surprising, but as for whatever comes after the movie’s closing credits begin to roll … well … the less one knows about the final third of this movie the better (my Planet of the Apes reference should clue you in enough). Go into White God aware of its hyperrealism and tendency to shift genres, and Hagen’s story could be for you. Mundruczó’s film never feels manipulative or overtly violent (most of it is suggested or shot with cutaways) and instead opts for that difficult combo of heart and pathos.
It’s in the film’s closing moments (which I don’t dare reveal here) that the movie becomes much more than the faux pitch I wrote at the start of this review. Its final line and final moments are simply stunning, and White God becomes a breathtaking beast of its own.
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