White God, drama, rated R, in Hungarian with subtitles, The Screen, 3 chiles
A girl wearing a blue hoodie, with a trumpet sticking out of her backpack, pedals her bike along a dreamscape of deserted city streets. From time to time she glances over her shoulder. A few blocks behind her, a dog rounds the corner, loping in slow motion. Another follows, and then more. Soon the streets are full of dogs, hundreds of them, racing in a pack toward her, overtaking her.
Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó uses a dog’s life as a savage metaphor for the oppression and brutalizing of the poor and powerless in a Europe where xenophobic hostility is on the rise. It is a movie that ought to come with a warning sticker, lest gentle animal lovers wander in expecting The Incredible Journey.
White God (the title will puzzle you until you connect it with Samuel Fuller’s White Dog, a 1982 movie about a dog trained to attack black people) begins as a girl-and-her-dog story, but it doesn’t take long before we get hints that this will not be a warm and fuzzy tale. A scene in which we meet her father in the slaughterhouse where he works as a meat inspector is enough to send you screaming into the arms of vegans.
Teenaged Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is dumped on her father, Dániel (Sándor Zsótér), when her mother goes off for an extended conference. Dániel is not pleased, especially when Lili brings along her beloved Hagen, a large red mongrel (played by siblings Luke and Bodie). When it turns out that he will have to pay a tax imposed by the Hungarian government on dogs that are not purebred, Dániel unceremoniously dumps Hagen along the highway.
The story bifurcates at this point, one path following Lili and her adolescent angst, the other following Hagen and his canine tribulations. Hagen has the rougher time of it, falling into the hands of unscrupulous humans who may cause you to reflect on the sins of Michael Vick and his dog-fighting horrors.
The movie is clearly headed toward a reunion of Lili and Hagen, but the route it takes is unexpected and harsh, and the destination at best is bittersweet.
The acting, including the screen debut of young Psotta, is fine but not remarkable. The dogs are the tail that wags this movie, and that eerily dreamlike opening sequence pays off with a stunning climax as the pack of dogs, 271 of them — and all real, not a CGI imposter among them — comes stampeding through the streets of Budapest. American trainer Teresa Miller assembled and worked with the canine performers, and it is comforting to know that no dogs were harmed, particularly during the grisly dogfight scenes, and all were subsequently adopted.
— Jonathan Richards
Packing it in: Zsófia Psotta