A few years ago I was attacked by a large dog while walking home one night. Its owner assured me that it wouldn’t bother me, but when I tried to walk past it I suddenly found myself pushed to the ground while the thing bore down on my hand with its teeth. This was the dead of winter, and I was able to slip my hand out of my glove and escape. The incident was a vindication of a lifelong distrust of dogs, particularly large dogs.
White God is a film about large dogs, and it might just be the best film I’ve seen this year.
Our setting is Budapest; our protagonists are a young girl named Lili and a mixed-breed dog named Hagen. As the story begins, Lili moves in with her father, who takes an instant dislike to Hagen, and eventually abandons him by the side of the road. It’s a quiet and understated opening, giving few hints about the horror that will eventually unfold.
From here the narrative splits in half, alternating between Hagen and Lili. Hagen’s arc crawls steadily downward into the harsh and gritty underworld of the city. Initially he joins foraging packs of feral dogs, but before long becomes a prisoner in the harsh world of dogfighting, an experience which changes him physically and mentally. Lili, meanwhile, is on the cusp of young adulthood, and her arc is more of a coming-of-age story. As she struggles with the loss of her dog, she must also confront her strained relationship with her father, and to test her own boundaries while bonding with the older teenagers in her music ensemble. She too enters an underworld, and she too is changed by it. Both stories benefit from strong character work, unbroken intensity, and skilled acting, even from the canine actors.
The movie abruptly shifts gears when Hagen manages to overcome his captors and liberate a pack of feral dogs. From here on, the story becomes something very different, as Hagen leads his kin on a murderous rampage through the streets of Budapest. It’s a strange and unexpected direction, one that completely eschews the movie’s precedent of realism, and yet somehow it feels fitting. I think it’s the degree of sympathy which the film manages to create between viewer and dog that helps to push aside the implausibility of the situation and allow it to read as a straight revenge drama–and one with surprising heart. As Hagen’s mob rule draws to its inevitable conclusion, the film winds down beautifully, ending on a somber and fitting note that brings the two narratives back into sync with each other.
The dogs of White God can and will act as symbols for any oppressed minority group. As a social metaphor, the film’s story is infinitely reusable. As such it may not seem to be saying anything very specific, but perhaps that is a virtue: the story speaks to very universal human emotions and behavior in a way that a more specific form of commentary could not, an immortal message about the darker side of human nature.
The atmosphere is beautiful. The edifices and back alleys of Budapest support the story greatly, and the film is filled with arresting and memorable imagery. The Budapest of White God is a moody, rain-ridden place, one which can quickly turn from hope to despair. The photography is a big part of this, although sound plays a role as well: the emotive barks of Hagen and his compatriots, the whine of a villain’s drill, the recurring Liszt theme that bonds Hagen and Lili. The overall effect is immersive and remarkable.
White God is an unclassifiable film: it is by turns a drama, a revenge saga, and a monster movie. It is both tender and horrifying. It is Homeward Bound crossed with Lord of the Flies. It is many things at once, but they all come together into one remarkable experience.