In multifarious ways, all great art tackles life’s big questions. “What is man’s relationship to nature?” is one of my favorite questions to see explored on the silver screen. The new Hungarian video-on-demand release “White God” not only explores this question, but investigates it in revealing and sometimes frightening ways.
Our story begins simply, with preteen Lili (Zsófia Psotta) being dropped off to spend some time with her estranged father, Dániel (Sándor Zsótér). The two don’t get along very well, and their most contentious ongoing argument is about Hagen, Lili’s dog.
Lili and the dog are inseparable, and director Kornél Mundruczó wisely shows us why. The movie is divided into two halves defined by perspective. In the half of the movie that belongs to Lili, we see a world in which almost everyone she meets is an authority figure. Her father is introduced this way, along with her strict youth orchestra conductor, and even an older boy who seems to befriend her—none of them appear to have her best interest at heart.
Hagen is her one friend, someone who allows her innocence and happiness amid tumultuous adolescence. So when Hagen is ultimately abandoned by Dániel, we feel Lili’s anger and resentment that much more, and we hope against all odds that they can be reunited.
Dániel doesn’t disown Hagen simply because he is a distraction from Lili’s studies—“White God” imagines a Hungary in which all mixed-breed dogs must be removed from normal society by law. Once Hagen is left to fend for himself, he has a rough time of it. He narrowly escapes animal control and winds up at the hands of a merciless dogfighting trainer.
In this doggie apocalypse, fight or die seem to be the only two options. But as Hagen grows more merciless, he also grows more intelligent, and he seeks out revenge on those who have wronged him. The film culminates in a “Planet of the Apes”-style dog uprising.
The dog action in the film is truly exhilarating and unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. While all animal safety standards have clearly been adhered to, you really feel a sense of danger watching the scale of it. It’s even more of an achievement when you realize that the film has to walk a sensitive tightrope of making its main dog characters lovable, yet still frightening enough for the revolt to pack a punch.
The line between lovable and lethal is the underlying theme that makes “White God” the powerful experience it is. It makes us wonder to what degree we are complicit in some of the abuses that happen to the dogs in the film. When applied to Lili’s journey, this theme also reminds us that as humans, we can all be pushed to our limits. It can be hard sometimes to break free of whatever day-to-day concerns may “own” us. Just like dogs, we all need time to play.
You may be wondering about the title of the movie. As far as I can tell, it’s a tribute to Samuel Fuller’s 1982 film “White Dog,” about a dog trained for racially-motivated killings. If Fuller was alive today, he would probably be a huge fan of “White God.”
“White God” = 4.5/5
“White God” is available on Netflix, Google Play, Amazon Instant Video, and Vudu streaming platforms.
(Unrated: contains bloody violence and terror involving dogs.)