Director: Kornél Mundruczó
Screenplay: Kornél Mundruczó, Viktória Petrányi, Kata Wéber
Starring: Zsófia Psotta, Sándor Zsótér, Lili Horváth
Country: Hungary, Germany, Sweden
Running Time: 117 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
My friends and Blueprint colleagues Darren and Chris saw White God in Cannes back in 2014 and their description of it and positive review on our podcast put it high up my ‘want to watch’ list. It’s taken a little while to finally come out, but Metrodome picked it up in the UK and it’s just made its way to DVD. I grabbed myself a copy to see if it was worth the wait.
White God sees twelve year old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) go to stay with her estranged father while her mother goes away to a conference overseas. Due to the circumstances and being on the verge of becoming a teenager, she isn’t happy about her dad’s fairly strict rules. The worst of these however, concern her mixed breed dog Hagen. Her dad doesn’t want a dog in his apartment, particularly a mutt like Hagen, so after some heated arguments and an incident at Lili’s orchestra practise he sets the dog free in the backstreets of the city.
So far, so straight forward. However, from this point in the film we split our focus between Lili’s coming of age story and the dog’s own adventure. This is where the film really becomes something special. Hagen struggles to look after himself on the streets, but befriends a feisty terrier (maybe – I’m no good with dog breeds and they’re all mixed anyway) who takes him to join a group of the many strays roaming the city. He manages to evade capture from the pound, but ends up getting picked up by a vagrant and gets passed on to a man who trains fighting dogs. This man sees something in Hagen’s eyes and brutally toughens him up, thinking the dog will be a great success on the cricuit.
Hagen becomes a changed animal, but manages to get away from the dog fights. After further cruel treatment at the hands of humans and ending up in the pound after all, he feels enough is enough though. He breaks free and lets loose his companions to wreak bloody vengeance on the abusive inhabitants of the city. When Lili realises Hagen is behind this, she thinks she might be able to talk him out of it.
In amongst this bizarre animal adventure and horror movie finale, we get Lili’s growth from insolent tween to young woman. This strange mix makes for a wonderfully unique film, even if some of the individual elements can seem a little generic. The film feels as much about Hagen than about Lili by the end, which grants a fresh perspective on the drama/thriller structure.
To make this perspective work, the filmmakers have done an astounding job of directing and working with the dogs. Hagen’s ‘performance’ is brilliant. You really feel for the animal and, through what I imagine is a mixture of wonderful dog handlers and clever editing, the dog actually manages to show off quite a range of expressive behaviour. A number of scenes contain large waves of dogs too, not enhanced by CGI (other than to sometimes place people in amongst them) so the expert handling of this in a film without a Hollywood budget is a sight to behold and allows for some powerful imagery.
The human elements are pretty well handled too. Psotta delivers a very strong performance for her age and her relationship with her father isn’t too forced. He’s strict with her, but understandably so for the most part. He’s not some sort of monster like he might be portrayed in a lesser film. You feel that he cares deeply for his daughter, but doesn’t know how to treat her at this point in her life.
It’s not all perfect though. The film uses the treatment of mixed breed dogs as a metaphor for race issues, which is a nice idea, but there’s way too much talk about ‘mutts’ and ‘mixed breeds’ throughout, making the point feel rather laboured.
As a horror movie, which it sort of becomes by the end, it’s not particularly effective either. The hordes of dogs make for a cool image, but their attacks aren’t always that convincing or tense. I actually found these parts of the film quite funny because they’re so over the top and out of place with what came before. The earlier adventure scenes with Hagen felt a bit Homeward Bound at times too, which made me chuckle from time to time. Maybe that was the intention and to be honest, it’s part of what made the film endearing to me, but it stopped me from taking the finale all that seriously. Speaking of the finale, there’s a bit of an obvious plant early on as to what will happen at the end too, but the final shot is great which helped redeem it.
So all in all, it might not always hit the mark on a scene-by-scene basis, but it’s so unique and engaging that I couldn’t help but enjoy it. It’s a remarkable filmmaking achievement too, making it as easy to admire as it is to watch.
White God is out on 3rd August in the UK on DVD, released by Metrodome. The DVD suffered from jaggies on my projector, but I usually watch Blu-Rays on there so maybe I’m just getting spoilt by HD.
There aren’t many special features, but a 17 minute making of featurette is a welcome inclusion, especially given the nature of how the film was made. Also included are a handful of deleted scenes and the usual trailers.