Deep Focus: White God
Set in a contemporary Hungarian state that decides to enforce canine racial purity, White God features the tantalizing spectacle of a 200-strong dog pack wreaking revenge on petty bureaucrats who are only following orders as they impound mixed breeds. The canine avengers also target evildoers who sell fighting dogs on the black market and train them to battle to the death. As a snob-appeal treatment of the kind of slob-appeal scenario designed to put audiences through the wringer, running the gamut from “Awwww” to “Ugh,” the film has played at major festivals like Sundance and even won Cannes’ Un Certain Regard Prize.
As a fable about Europe’s persecuted underclass and immigrants, White God is riddled with messages — though the surface message, “be kind to animals, or else,” is more potent than any of this film's allegorical ones. Putting animals who stand for human groups together with real human characters confuses the issues. White God wants audiences to be moved because stray dogs are persecuted like homeless people. But viewers are prodded to despise the one actual street person in the movie for taking advantage of a dog. (George Miller did a vastly better job of keeping his meanings and sympathies straight with the human and animal cast of Babe: Pig in the City.) Strictly as an animal adventure it slides into melodrama so haphazard that it borders on camp. Sure, it is superficially daring to transfigure the outcasts in Hungary and other European countries into persecuted dogs. Just beneath the surface, isn’t it inherently sentimental to view them as the equivalent of man’s best friends, who’d be naturally loyal and affectionate if they weren’t put under the whip? And when Hagen, the canine antihero, inspires them to break out from a Budapest dog pound, isn’t it even more insulting to depict them transforming, lickety-split, into an organized terrorist army?
In a poorly explained setup, we learn that the Hungarian government has cracked down on the proliferation of mixed breeds by levying an exorbitant tax on their owners. The movie begins after many owners have given their dogs up to shelters or abandoned them on the streets. In White God mutts are the wretched of the earth—and “mutt,” in fact, has become the equivalent of “the M word.” At one point, Lili (Zsofia Psotta), the 13-year-old heroine, corrects a classmate for using it and insists on the term “mixed breed.”
In an ironclad version of the butterfly effect, the actions of Lili’s family put Budapest under siege. When her svelte mother heads to Australia for a three-month academic appointment with her new man (also a professor), she leaves Lili with her ex-husband, Daniel (Sándor Zsótér), a former professor who now works as a meat inspector in a slaughterhouse. Director and co-writer Kornél Mundruczó seizes this chance to dwell on the blood and guts of butchered beef, swiftly establishing an anti-subtle aesthetic. (Later, when the dogs execute a butcher, they ignore all the meat around him—they’re so radical and pure, their only need is to complete their kill list.)
Daniel is already at wits’ end, out of touch with his adolescent daughter and disconsolate over losing a wife who appears to have “traded up.” Then he learns that he’s also expected to host Hagen, Lili’s beloved pet, described as a cross between a shar-pei and a labrador. This tawny, sturdy animal drips affection and concern from every shar-pei-like fold in his face. But he doesn’t win over Daniel, who sees that Lili prefers Hagen to him. When a nosy, mean-spirited neighbor witnesses the dog entering Daniel’s flat, she tells him “mutts must be reported.” The next day she blows the whistle to Budapest’s canine control workers and maliciously accuses Hagen of biting her. Lili strives to protect her pet by taking him everywhere she goes, including orchestra practice—after all, playing passages from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2 on her trumpet appears to calm her four-legged best pal. (The film’s source music comments on Hungary’s resurgent nationalism and chaotic past; when a French horn player riffs on “The Internationale,” you wonder if he’s being sardonic or nostalgic.)
Sadly, Hagen disrupts the rehearsal, and Lili’s rebelliousness and intransigence enrage her father, who puts Hagen out on the street. From then on, the movie runs on parallel dog and human tracks. In succession, Hagen comes under the thumbs of a desperate street person, a slimy café operator who runs the dog equivalent of the gladiator market in toga movies, and a shrewd ex-con who buys Hagen (now called “Max”) precisely because the animal still has “heart”— a heart that he can twist into hatred with the proper sadistic regimen. Meanwhile, Lili keeps searching for Hagen while struggling to connect with her father and to fit in with her more worldly orchestra mates, who are into partying, dating, and drugs. It will take an outright dogpocalypse to bring Lili and Hagen face to face again.
The film’s internal logic is ludicrously sketchy. If the tax is supposed to be a burden, why do people still line up to adopt mixed breeds at the pound? If Lili’s mother is a campus social climber, wouldn’t she have paid the extra tax on the dog? Even the kid characters drop their strict obedience to their authoritarian conductor and move toward sullen rebellion in a matter of weeks. (The film is shaky on chronology, but we know everything happens in under three months because Lili’s mother doesn’t re-enter the action.) White God is full of shots that might resonate if the movie had more depth and finesse. The image of Hagen as a dog alone, standing at a stoplight next to an elegant dalmatian with a well-heeled owner, should be funny and poignant instead of merely pointed. It also begs the question: are dalmatians considered near-native Hungarians because the breed started next door in Croatia?
No one was looking forward to this movie more than yours truly. I grew up loving Jack London’s allegorical dog adventures The Call of the Wild and White Fang (and I still love them). I treasure George Miller’s Babe and Babe: Pig in the City for their cavalcades of complex canine characters. And I was all the more psyched when I discovered that this movie’s animal performers came from adoption lists or shelters, and found families after shooting. The most admirable aspect of White God is the skill of Teresa Miller, a second-generation dog trainer (her father, Karl Lewis Miller, supervised the animals in, among other movies, the Babe films, Cujo, and Sam Fuller’s White Dog). She seamlessly melds two brothers, “Luke” and “Bodie,” into Hagen. Together they bring persuasiveness and clarity to the most terrifying proceedings, including Hagen’s training for the dogfight—a mini horror movie in itself (his owner dresses like a serial killer)—and the gruesome clash of fang and paw in the dog ring. Even if you know that all the violence is simulated, you wonder how the dog performers feel as they nudge a rotting dog cadaver near a city bridge or eye a still-warm corpse in the dog ring. Unfortunately, the movie’s escalating extremism burns off Hagen’s individuality. He becomes a lean, mean fighting machine, and a robotic character.
Watching White God, I hoped for the longest time that the title would refer to the pale, frisky terrier mix who teaches Hagen how to survive in the streets and repeatedly rescues him from capture. These two share a chemistry that surpasses anything Hagen gets going with Lili. They exude an easy rapport as they lounge on an abandoned easy chair or sit quietly on a dump site on a hill overlooking a dog pond. The anonymous terrier retains qualities of canine soul while all the dogs around him are losing theirs, Hagen included. I thought the film might retain a shred of dignity if Hagen decided to make his pal a doggie divinity when he becomes leader of the pack.
No such luck. The movie never gets that imaginative or upbeat—it equates maturity with grimness. Mundruczó wants the phrase “white God” to catalyze thoughts about whether God is white, a particularly loaded question since he feels (per the interview provided in the press notes) that “The White Man has proved countless times that he is only capable of ruling and colonizing.” In the filmmaker’s own words, this movie uses dogs—or the timeless figure of The Dog—as “the symbol of the eternal outcast whose master is his god.”
Mundruczó says that deploying canines instead of human characters freed him from the inhibitions that would have come with depicting marginalized people and minorities. But revenge melodrama carries crippling limitations, too, including overweening demands for jeopardy and violence. If you’re going to use animals to create a political fable in action-movie form, you’d better work it out as beautifully as Matt Reeves did in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And you’d better make sure that you’re in control of mood and tone. The sight of dogs crashing through the gates of a pound and speeding down city streets and railroad tracks is both invigorating as a sprint to freedom and upsetting as a depiction of dogs becoming man’s worst enemy. But when they start tearing shopping bags and garbage bags from people’s hands, the spectacle often plays like a Mel Brooks parody of a terrible Irwin Allen disaster film, with lunatic bow-wows intent on eye-for-an-eye justice instead of killer bees.
Both of the most recent Planet of the Apes films are so much stronger as parable, narrative, and spectacle, that you’ve got to wonder whether the prestigious kudos for White God signal a return to the days when foreign-language movies with political and cultural aspirations were immediately graded up. The Planet of the Apes movies are even better at illustrating this film’s obligatory epigraph from Rilke: “Everything terrible is something that needs our love.” The visually striking final scene of White God, designed to restore our affection for the dogs and our respect for Lili as an independent character, carries the clichéd message, “music soothes the savage beast”—even if that music is from bombastic old Franz Liszt.