Late in White God, the Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s brave and tantalizing movie, there comes an image that will strike many viewers as strangely familiar. A representative of an oppressive regime stands face-to-face with one of her subjects, a sweet-tempered innocent that she and the rest of her class have turned into a threatening monster, and realizes with a start that the monster has broken free of its chains.
That the monster in question is a mixed-breed dog—and the representative in question the owner of a pound—is the central conceit of Mundruczó’s film, which takes place in a gray-cast Budapest split between a grotesquerie of callous humans and the fugitive strays over which they exercise unchecked power. Much of the movie is, on the surface, a catalog of abuses along the lines of those visited on the saint-like donkey in Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar. Hagen is abandoned by his teenage owner’s divorced father, who refuses to pay a tax recently imposed on the keepers of non-purebred (read: “mongrel”) dogs. He’s abused in succession by a butcher, a pair of dogcatchers, a cartoonishly ghastly homeless man, a sadistic dogfighter, and the slightly more sympathetic owner of the city’s animal shelter, long resigned, you sense, to the fact that she can’t save them all.
The humans themselves, considered as written characters, are weirdly thin and without texture—as if the generous attention and screen time the canines receive was at their expense. The best scenes in White God show Hagen’s early solidarity with the street dogs into whose company he’s been forced; surely no recent fiction film has conveyed with such respect the way animals interact on their own terms. These passages are the movie’s great dramatic experiment, and you sense that they drew Mundruczó’s attention away from the parallel scenes involving Lili (Zsófia Psotta), Hagen’s adolescent owner, and her disappointed, embittered dad (Sándor Zsótér).
Equally intriguing are Hagen’s interactions with his human abusers, who, at times, attribute to him an unexpected depth of feeling. “He doesn’t hate us,” one dogcatcher says to another when a cornered Hagen licks the man’s hand. “You’ve still got a soul,” the dog is told some time later by the man who will imprison him, beat him, and force him to kill. Mundruczó’s film is at its most interesting when it sets up this sort of speech as a kind of violence. One of the movie’s strengths is that, like Balthazar, it recognizes its hero’s dead-end status as a protagonist; there’s a limit to how much access any film could have to whatever Hagen’s “inner life” might be. To psychologize him, White God sometimes suggests, would be abuse by other means. (Not, mind you, that the movie doesn’t occasionally foist ill-fitting psychological motivations on him nonetheless.)
But this is Balthazar by way of Frankenstein, of which Mundruczó not long ago directed a very loose contemporary adaptation. The final act of White God, in which Hagen leads the rest of the city’s mutts in an uprising against his human oppressors, is the reckoning for which the film’s prevailing mood of expectant dread has prepared us. Like most cinematic depictions of revolt or revenge, it’s underwritten by the thought that a society, by spurning and abusing its Others, ends up turning them into precisely the sort of threat it had taken them to be at the outset. If White God is a sympathetic movie in principle—an invitation for us to take responsibility for creating our monsters—it’s less sympathetic in practice, if only because of the leering, vindictive perspective it adopts for the dogs’ climactic onslaught. We are back in the space of the revenge fantasy, where the morally bankrupt get their grisly comeuppance and the avenging, inhuman victims are, well, scary—and not much more.