“Never work with children or animals”, said comedian W. C. Fields. Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó either never heard that famous quote, or more likely chose to ignore it. And thank the gods, because WHITE GOD is a truly stunning and riveting film, which utilises the concepts of human youth and animal prowess to great effect.
Combining the social-realist aesthetic of the Dardenne brothers with the air of the recent films in the PLANET OF THE APES franchise might seem to be a precarious balance, but this is exactly what Mundruczó has achieved, and it pays off.
The film begins as teenager Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is taken to live with her estranged father Daniel (Sándor Zsótér) for the summer. Lili brings along her pet dog Hagen, a mongrel. Not only does Lili’s father object, but a prying neighbour in his building reports the dog to the authorities as there is a tax on mixed-breed dogs. This, combined with an already fractious relationship between father and daughter, leads to Daniel abandoning Hagen to a treacherous fate on the streets of Budapest.
Hagen’s narrative journey and some dog-fighting scenes seem to take inspiration from sources such as AMORES PERROS, and the episode of The Simpsons where Santa’s Little Helper is trained to become one of Mr Burns’s hounds. Hagen’s story is familiar, but has never quite been told in such a sincere and honest way as it is here.
The dogs unite and start to fight back against the humans who mistreat them. We spend a lot of time with Hagen and his mongrel cohorts. As the view stays at Hagen’s eye level, we experience the city, the people and the cruelty from his perspective.
Meanwhile we also follow Lili. Distraught at losing Hagen she vows to find him, while also facing her own torment at the hands of her strict music teacher and dealing with peer pressure in the orchestra she’s part of.
Hagen’s and Lili’s stories run parallel to each other, each depicting how society can be cruel to people it does not understand, or those who do not fit into the established order.
The parable-like nature of WHITE GOD is clear. It reflects on the ways that society mistreats some social groups and demonstrates how violence and civil unrest unfurl as a result. The film could be set in any city in the world and the message would be the same.
WHITE GOD is an honest, fresh take on how to depict through film the many challenges facing modern society. It is also a wonderfully realised technical achievement, done with heart and soul.