At this risk of going all 30 for 30 on you, what if I told you one of the most layered, soulful performances I’ve seen all year comes courtesy of a canine? White God is a hypnotic, Hungarian parable about a girl and her dog. Sounds simple enough, but director Kornel Mundruczo places an unprecedented amount of storytelling responsibility on non-CGI, four-legged performers. The results are occasionally uneven, but frequently spellbinding.
“Nobody wants a stinking mutt. That’s what shelters are for.”
Lili (Zsofia Psotta) is a tween-age girl who is temporarily placed in the care of her estranged father (Sandor Zsoter) while her mother goes out of town. Much to her dad’s chagrin, Lili brings along her beloved mixed-breed dog Hagen (played by twin pups Body and Luke). Lili’s father — and Hungarian society at large, it seems — strongly disapproves of dogs like Hagen, and he eventually forces Lili to give him up.
Abandoned in the streets by himself, Hagen embarks on an adventure that becomes increasingly hellish. After falling in with another pack of street dogs, Hagen evades dogcatchers before eventually getting drafted into a dogfighting ring. Meanwhile, Lili continues her search for Hagen on the sly, as she dodges her own set of domineering authority figures and questionable pack of friends. Hagen ends up at an animal shelter, where he inspires an uprising that puts him on a collision course with Lili…and everyone who ever made the mistake of oppressing him.
As bananas as that synopsis sounds, I promise you that White God — or Feher isten in Hungary — is even crazier. By the time Mundruczo stages a chase sequence involving Hagen, some of his pooch pals, and a group of relentless dog catchers as if it were something out of The Fugitive, I wondered just how serious the director was being with all of this. Mundruczo, who shares screenwriting credit with Viktoria Petranyi and Kata Weber, resists winking at the audience and unfurls his outlandish story with a straight face. The juxtaposition can be a bit jarring — I doubt Hungarian society is quite this cruel to mixed-breed dogs — but the film clearly takes place in a heightened reality where the pooches unsubtly stand in for any number of oppressed minorities and practically every adult is a dog-hating monster.
Mundruczo, editor David Jancso, and animal coordinator Teresa Ann Miller deserve special kudos for crafting strong performances out of their award-winning animal cast. The “role” of Hagen is particularly tricky, since the pup has an honest-to-goodness character arc from loving house pet to hardened street survivor. The scenes where Hagen has the (for lack of a better word) humanity systematically beaten out of him are particularly brutal to watch. Mundruczo and Jancso mix in both unflinching long takes and somewhat tasteful cutaways.
White God is alternately an adventure film, a horror movie, and concludes with a revenge-tinged final act that stretches credulity to its limit. (By that point, you’re either all in or totally out on the movie’s outrageous conceit.) Unfortunately, the film is also about 20 minutes too long because it mixes in too many Whiplash-lite scenes of Lili under the thumb of a boorish music teacher (Laszlo Galffi) and Lili connecting with an older teenage boy. Psotta is a compelling, communicative young performer, so I blame flat writing for these scenes not really working. I also blame the fact that the material with Hagen and his puppy pals is infinitely more interesting and mesmerizing to watch, so I resent that other material for taking up valuable screen time.
In addition to The Fugitive, White God made me think of Lassie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the legend of the Pied Piper and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds at various points. I honestly can’t imagine any other piece of fiction that would even think of throwing all those influences into the same stew. It doesn’t always work, but one thing is clear: every dog here certainly has his day.
White God is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 33 mbps. In shouting out the work of Mundruczo and the film’s editor, I intentionally omitted cinematographer Marcell Rev until this section. The film opens with an operatic flourish — a crowd of dogs is trailing Lili on her bike: is she leading them…or are they chasing her? — that looks phenomenal despite a bit of motion blur. That opening sequence is warm, clean and offers precise detail, despite the grim and horrifying circumstances. The rest of this Blu-ray presentation from Magnolia Home Entertainment follows suit, offering an earthy presentation that finds the startling beauty in some truly ugly settings. (There’s probably more fine detail than anyone wanted during the slo-mo dogfight.) The image maintains its high quality during low-lighting, which includes a nightclub scene with some strobe lights and the film’s dark, ominous finale.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Hungarian track offers plenty of space for Asher Goldschmidt’s majestic, (intentionally?) overwrought score to work. The surround sound field is also in full effect during all of Lili’s music class scenes. Subs come alive during a her hazy trip to a nightclub. But again, the highlights involve the work with the animal cast. Subs also subtly chime in to give extra weight to a thundering pack of dogs during the film’s final act. On top of that, there is impressive directionality as the dogs zoom from one side of the screen to the other and the sound from the speakers follows suit. There is also some solid, understated immersion that helps fill the space during the dialogue-free stretches involving Hagen and his fellow dogs. Sorry, subtitle haters: there is no English-language dub.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
Behind the Scenes of White God: (17:17) This strong “Making of” supplants the typical talking head interviews with some really good stuff: we get to see how this massive animal cast was wrangled and how the filmmakers got such great performances out of them. We watch Psotta become acquainted with the pups who play Hagen so they could simulate an unbreakable bond on screen. Teresa Ann Miller talks about training the dogs to be “untrained” rather than teaching them to do standard tricks. And before PETA grabs their pitchforks, we also see that the “violent” dogfighting scene involved padded floors, rubber tips on the dogs’ nails, and a pair of pooches horsing around.
Interview with writer/director Kornel Mundruczo: (14:42) The director talks about being inspired to write the story after a trip to an animal shelter. He also discusses the challenges of getting the project off the ground in the first place and balancing how much violence to show on screen. Like the movie itself, goes on a bit long but worth watching.
Interview with animal coordinator/technical adviser Teresa Ann Miller: (4:43) With Body by her side, Miller talks about the long process of finding the right Hagen(s) and how the character’s “Jekyll/Hyde” persona was the most unique challenge of her career. I actually wouldn’t have minded if this chat had been a bit longer.
Some parts of White God will be downright unwatchable to some, due to their depictions of animal cruelty. (In case you’re wondering, no animals were harmed in the making of this film. In fact, the movie opens with a disclaimer stating all the canine performers — which had been rescued from the streets or animal shelters — were placed in adoptive homes after filming concluded.)
That being said, I still recommend you give this one a look if you can stomach it. The story occasionally drags and it doesn’t always click, but there’s some truly affecting, mesmerizing material here.