‘White God’

‘White God’ deals with the plight of un­wanted an­i­mals in a vivid, poignant way.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Robert Abele cal­en­dar@la­times.com

A fa­ble about a girl and her dog sud­denly flips into a nail-bit­ing thriller.

A small, touch­ing fa­ble about a girl and her dog be­comes an adren­a­line-pump­ing thriller about an­i­mals against hu­mans in Hungarian film­maker Kornél Mun­druczó’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing rad­i­cal­iza­tion al­le­gory “White God.” By turns Dick­en­sian, Marx­ist and dystopian, it’s a movie as deliri­ously un­clas­si­fi­able as it is ex­pertly fo­cused in its de­sire to pro­voke and en­ter­tain.

The setup is in­ti­mate and rec­og­niz­able, heart­break­ingly so. When 13-year-old child of di­vorce Lili (Zsó­fia Psotta) is handed off for a few months to her short­tem­pered slaugh­ter­house in­spec­tor fa­ther (Sandor Zsótér), she brings her true bestie, a lov­able red­dish­brown mutt named Ha­gen. Dad won’t pay a new pure­bred-fa­vored tax on mixed breed own­er­ship, how­ever, and in a fit of rage aban­dons Ha­gen to the streets, to the dis­may of his daugh­ter.

While Lili bat­tles fruit­less searches for her com­pan­ion and sim­mer­ing re­sent­ment to­ward author­ity, “White God” ini­ti­ates a par­al­lel track by giv­ing us Ha­gen’s jour­ney, and a whopper it is: a bru­tal se­ries of near-death es­capes from a cleaver­wield­ing butcher tired of mon­grels hang­ing out­side his shop, the clutches of the an­i­mal shel­ter, and the sadis­tic world of un­der­ground dog-fight­ing.

Th­ese scenes bond us to Ha­gen’s plight with un­re­lent­ing pri­macy. Filmed with the jagged en­ergy of a Paul Green­grass nail-biter, they make clear that few films have ever so ex­plic­itly shown the daily threat to life for a crea­ture left to fend for it­self in a so­ci­ety that dis­misses it as a beast de­signed for sub­ju­ga­tion, abuse, and/ or ex­ter­mi­na­tion. This part of the nar­ra­tive is also ex­pertly shot and edited to sug­gest more than it shows, in case your feel­ings about an­i­mals uti­lized for drama­ti­za­tion veer to­ward alarm. Mun­druczó em­ployed myr­iad train­ers and ad­hered to strict an­i­mal treat­ment guide­lines, but not to any overly molded and cute Dis­ney-fied ef­fect.

“White God” is movie trick­ery in the ser­vice of the nat­u­ral­is­tic in de­pict­ing who dogs are, and the nat­u­rally ma­nip­u­la­tive about our em­pa­thy to­ward an­i­mals. A cen­tury af­ter Lev Kuleshov’s fa­mous early-cinema ex­per­i­ments in how edit­ing the same face with dif­fer­ent shots trig­gers the illusion of dis­crete emo­tions, we might as well be pawns all over again. Rapt, riv­eted pawns.

And that art­ful ren­der­ing of dog “per­for­mance” is key, be­cause when Mun­druczó shifts gears to vi­su­al­ize a ter­ri­fy­ing city­wide ca­nine takeover — tar­geted, venge­ful and gory bites prov­ing much worse than barks — it makes for some of the film’s most breath­tak­ing, scary and emo­tion­ally com­plex mo­ments. “White God” had al­ready opened with beau­ti­fully dream­like shots of Lili bi­cy­cling down empty streets un­til scores of dogs ca­reen around a cor­ner, their bod­ies in full, mag­nif­i­cent mo­tion. Are they fol­low­ing her? Or chas­ing her? By the time Mun­druczó re­turns to that scene as some­thing lit­eral, it’s a pow­er­ful, purecin­ema re­minder that the iconog­ra­phy of free­dom and up­ris­ing needn’t only be­long to hu­mans.

Mag­no­lia Pic­tures

WHEN LILI (Zsó­fia Psotta) and her dog, Ha­gen, are sep­a­rated, both take a sear­ing jour­ney in “White God.”

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