Film Review: White God

In this imaginative but inept cautionary parable—the Un Certain Regard prize-winner at Cannes—a girl searches for her beloved dog, who becomes a canine Spartacus after being brutalized by a cruel dog-fighting ring.
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They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul. That hasn't always proven correct with some performers, who could look forcefully into a camera and still reveal nothing about themselves or the character they are inhabiting. The same problem presents itself in Kornél Mundruczó's White God, only this time the eyes in question aren't those of human actors, but canine ones. Eyes are important in this film because the story has so little to offer; about all that's left to engage with are the dogs who spend a good amount of time peering soulfully out of the screen. And that's before they rise up against their human oppressors. 

One of the few seemingly decent humans on display in Mundruczó's dyspeptic landscape is Lili (Zsófia Psotta). She spends most of the film in some form of distress. Before the film's title even flashes onscreen, she is seen riding her bike through a deserted downtown and being chased by a pack of wild dogs. After that, the film flashes back to Lili being dropped off by her mother and stepfather to spend time with her father. Unfortunately, Lili's dad, Daniel (Sándor Zsótér), is a grey-faced, controlling, depressed sort. He works at a slaughterhouse, pronouncing certain cuts of meat “suitable for consumption.” He also doesn’t appear to have much regard for Lili’s dog, Hagen. It is no mistake that Mundruczó pairs those two aspects in one character.

In the Hungary imagined by this film, a law has apparently been passed that demands all dogs to be locally bred types. “It’s not a Hungarian breed,” a nosy neighbor points out about the lovably mutt-ish Hagen. “You have to pay a fee.” With this scrap of exposition out of the way, Mundruczó goes back to the dreary and pulse-free domestic melodrama being enacted between Daniel and Lili. He is annoyed by the dog and doesn’t show any great understanding of children. This is most likely just Daniel’s anger over having to deal with his ex-wife being misdirected at his two new roommates. Lili, for her part, shows no interest in doing anything but palling around with Hagen. So after Hagen disrupts her music class and she is thrown out, Daniel forces her to leave Hagen on the side of the road.

At that point, White God takes on a different hue. Hagen wanders the city looking for food, shelter and companionship. He finds them all only briefly before being captured by a man who trains him for the dog-fighting ring. In what seems like just barely a matter of days, Hagen turns from happy-go-lucky mutt to growling killing machine with a blood-drenched snout. Normally this would all read as ham-handed neo-realism, with Lili and Hagen’s wild and uncontrollable natures making them kindred spirits battling deadening conformity. But there are deeper issues layered here. Hagen’s continued mistreatment by humans is all just kindling on the smoldering bonfire of his canine rage. So when he is thrown into a shelter and is about to be euthanized, Hagen fights back.

It’s probable that Mundruczó believes himself to have engaged grand themes here. Man being the real animal, for instance. That wouldn’t make much sense with the film he’s created, though, as Hagen (at least until he becomes master of the animal uprising) is treated little better by most of the city’s other dogs than he is by people. Or it could all just be an ineptly handled gag, like the agit-prop Euro-Benji film it occasionally resembles. The stock horror-film tropes that populate the film’s giggle-inducing final stretches—with the exception of the improbably eerie concluding shot—are creaky at best, lazy at worst. Is it all just in fun or is a message being delivered? There isn’t much in the poorly acted and haphazardly filmed White God that seeds any curiosity about what the real answer is.

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