In the world of cinema, emotion counts for a lot. Disney made their greatest works based off of the emotions of the cinemagoer, as have some of the most peerless works of fiction ever unleashed upon the masses. As human beings our emotions dictate how we feel, act and behave from day to day. So it is in a strange turn of events that one of the most heart-grasping cinematic tour de forces of the year is a Hungarian film about oppressed canines and their vengeance. From the very opening, White God (Fehér isten) makes no bones about aiming for your soul. Opening with the line "Everything terrible is something that needs our love", a quote from Czech-born poet/novelist Rainer Maria Rilke, director Kornél Mundruczó makes his intentions visible from the start. White God is (and this is an overused line nowadays) awesome, both as a film experience and as a social commentary on class prejudice and animal welfare.
The film sees young girl Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her dog Hagen (played by two dogs in the film - Luke and Body) forced to stay with her father (Sándor Zsótér) while her mother and partner are away. When Hagen’s place at the home comes into question and Lili fights to keep him, her irate father consequently sets him loose on the streets. A devastated Lili attempts to recover, as Hagen discovers the true nature of street life, which leads to rebellion. The plot sounds like a cross between Homeward Bound and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and in a way that is quite an apt summary. This Hungarian drama starts as a human family drama before coming to be a two-tier story of a young girl trying her best to hold on to love among heartless adults and a kind dog being twisted into a monster by cruelty. Lashed with elements of Cujo and 28 Days Later, the plot eventually comes to take influence from horror but never loses its intimate and brutally honest connection with your feelings.
Lili’s tale is well constructed and believable, but as strong as it is it pales in comparison to the film’s central story of Hagen. Taking the much-dismissed issue of animal performance to whole new levels, this realistic (but rest easy, it is safely staged) story of systematic animal abuse is powerfully conveyed through the performances of the film’s four-legged stars. Some will be horrified by what occupies this tragic tale, but those in the know will be stunned by the upfront honesty of this film in its presentation of the dog fighting industry and all its shameful practices. As will many at the film’s comment on devastating animal rights abuse and preposterous modern day laws that victimize animals. White God is a film that twists the notion of mans best friend and shows the true face of street life for dogs… and in fact other animals too. As well as layering its ideology even more by likening its canine cast to the lower classes that have been prejudiced by those in a higher standing throughout the years. This would work just as well as a silent film, with Asher Goldschmidt’s elegant and appropriate score, Marcell Rév’s socially realistic cinematography, and these beautiful animal’s tremendous performances being all the dialogue that is necessary.
The performances of the animals are constantly astonishing, as are the well-constructed and original scenes that occupy the fist-in-the-air final quarter of the film. This is realistic to the point of documentary, minus the odd moment of clear staging (which actually come as a relief considering the content) and the more cinematic final quarter (think a revenge flick version of Lassie). Hagen emerges, in a year of Iron and Ant Men, as the greatest hero of 2015, one that liberates his race and the film (while breaking your heart and educating those unaware of the brutal reality of street animals) entertains, enthrals and upsets in equal measure. Psotta is wonderful as Lili, giving an emotive and naturalistic performance and her final act of embracing love over violence as two races go to war is touching and beautiful. Zsótér likewise is excellent, being punchable for most of the films duration, before delving into emotion later on. This is a film built inside a world of hate, violence and abuse, but one which is filled with so much goodwill by all involved. The expansive canine (a world record 274 dogs starred) cast is all credited alongside their human counterparts and a small credits note states that the dogs were all adopted and given a home as part of the film’s welfare initiative, which is further proof of why this is a film to admire.
Contrary to making a purely barking mad genre mash of a film (ridiculously not nominated for best foreign feature at the Oscars), Kornél Mundrucó has crafted an intimate, heartbreaking, brutal but effective parable of man’s inhumanity to those that rely on and often defend us. This is a keen, no holds barred, social commentary wrapped inside an ambitious film that is masterfully directed, written and performed. Expect to be moved, entertained and even angered by this Un Certain Regard Award and Palm Dog Award-winner. White God features loss (the death of a scene-stealing side character will have you wishing death upon the human race), pain and aggression but ends, like Hitchcock’s The Birds, with a gentle and quiet final image, leaving us to hope that perhaps one day man will learn that there is more to be said for beauty than brutality. A masterful experience from start to finish, with a tale we can all draw something from.
Special Features: Making of / Deleted scenes
WHITE GOD/ CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: KORNÉL MUNDRUCZÓ / SCREENPLAY: KORNÉL MUNDRUCZÓ / STARRING: ZSÓFIA PSOTTA, SÁNDOR ZSÓTÉR, LILI HORVÁTH / RELEASE DATE: 3RD AUGUST