Zsófia Psotta in Kornél Mundruczó’s “White God.” | MAGNOLIA PICTURES
Take the opening scene of Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s “White God”: a 13-year-old white girl rides her bicycle through deserted Budapest streets, followed by a pack of feral dogs. The very title of this film signals its allegorical intentions, through an allusion to Sam Fuller’s “White Dog.” That film was about a dog trained to attack African-Americans. (Coincidentally, “The White God” was also the original name of an album by neo-Nazi heavy metal band Burzum. Given Mundruczó’s leftist politics, the irony is thick.) In using animals to stand in for the human underclass, “White God” benefits from the vagueness of its allegory. Imagine the opening scene restaged with black or Arab men following the girl, and it quickly becomes problematic. A few years ago, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “The Help” played side by side in multiplexes, and the former proved to be a far more daring and less patronizing treatment of the demand for freedom.
In a near-future Hungary, a tax is placed on owners of mixed-breed dogs. Lili (Zsófia Psotta) owns a “mutt,” Hagen (played by two dogs, Luke and Bodie), but her father (Sándor Zsótér) doesn’t want to pay the tax and doesn’t like Hagen much anyway. After an argument in the car, her father dumps Hagen in the street. Lili tries to find him, and Hagen tries to find his way home, but he winds up abused by humans. A homeless man sells him to a dogfight organizer. After participating in one fight, he manages to escape and run with a pack of feral dogs. They’re all caught and placed in the pound, but this turns out to be a temporary situation. Meanwhile, Lili talks back to her music teacher and gets busted with drugs, which she's holding for a friend, at a nightclub.
Last year, a few critics voted for Jean-Luc Godard’s dog Roxy as one of 2014’s best actors for his “performance” in Godard’s “Goodbye to Language.” Roxy benefited from his owner’s loving gaze but didn’t do anything spectacular. The dogs in “White God” really do give outstanding performances. The two brothers who play Hagen are listed second in the cast and deserve such prominent placement. Hagen goes through hell in “White God.” It’s hard not to believe that Luke and Bodie understand his character arc. Some of the other feral dogs have their own distinct personalities. Perhaps all this will be familiar and obvious to dog owners — after being bitten by a dog when I was four, I’ve never liked them much — but it seems like a remarkable accomplishment on the part of Mundruczó and animal trainer Teresa Miller.
Kornél Mundruczó’s allegory examines brutal realities of oppression and retaliation
“White God” mixes sentimentality and cruelty. It starts off as a sweet tale of a girl and a dog, although family films usually don’t start at the slaughterhouse. (No cows are killed on-screen, but their carcasses are torn apart and we see future steaks walking placidly to their fate.) Lili’s father won’t let Hagen sleep in the same bed as her, but he doesn’t want to put up with Hagen’s wails of loneliness. Lili plays the trumpet to the dog to calm him and sleeps in the bathtub rather than submitting to her father’s will.
A colleague brought her young daughter to the press screening where I saw “White God,” perhaps misreading the plot summary. After the first half hour, this becomes a brutal film. The credits emphasize that no animals were harmed in its making, but the dogfights are convincingly faked. Mundruczó does use sound and off-screen space to suggest, rather than directly depict, much of the film’s violence. He also fragments the dog’s bodies with close-ups that come very close to them and then cut quickly away. He’s learned a lot from action directors like Paul Greengrass and the late Tony Scott, although I doubt anyone will accuse “White God” of being “chaos cinema.”
“White God” eventually allows its dogs to get revenge, evoking recent Quentin Tarantino films, not least in its goriness. Yet Tarantino seems to think violence is justified when committed by characters on the right side of history. “White God” finds something both awesome and appalling in the violence perpetrated by the dog pack, conveyed in broad panoramic shots of dogs facing down police. This ambivalence is one area where the film benefits from being about animals, rather than human minorities — it can safely suggest that the oppressed are capable of horrible deeds. In the end, the white God is replaced by a teenage girl with a trumpet and no idea what's next on the agenda beyond simple decency.
WHITE GOD | Directed by Kornél Mundruczó | Magnolia Pictures | In Hungarian with English subtitles | Opens Mar. 27 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St.; ifccenter.com | Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, 1886 Broadway at W. 62nd St.; lincolnplazacinema.com