White God (2014)
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó
Produced by Jessica Ask, et. al.
Screenplay by Kornél Mundruczó, Viktória Petrányi, Kata Wéber
Cinematography by Marcell Rév
Edited by Dávid Jancsó
Rated R for violence, including bloody images, language
(color; in Hungarian with English subtitles; 2:01)
Unless you’re into independent and/or international films, you probably haven’t seen either the poster or the opening image of White God: a 13-year-old girl speeding her bicycle through the empty downtown streets of Budapest as hundreds of angry dogs race after her. That may be enough to pique your interest to sit through a 2-hour Hungarian film with English subtitles. If so, you may come away from the film feeling exhilarated, disgusted, cheated, or maybe even a better human being, I don’t know. But you probably won’t forget the experience.
Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is a child of divorced parents, forced to live with her father while her mother pursues an employment opportunity. The problem is, Lili has her dog with her, a mutt named Hagen. Lili’s father Daniel (Sandor Zsoter) doesn’t want the dog, knowing that if it stays he’ll have to pay a government tax on mixed breeds. Daniel’s solution is to get rid of the dog in a way that is, unfortunately, all too common. Lili is horrified and so are we.
What happens next is truly horrifying and by “next,” I don’t mean the next few minutes, I mean the next hour and a half. The makers of White God insist that no animals were harmed during the film’s production, but you wonder how that could be. The film contains many unsettling and downright disgusting scenes, but none of them appear to have been accomplished with the use of CGI. If these are indeed real dogs being filmed, we need to institute a category at the Oscars for Best Performance by an Animal.
The genuineness of the film is also its undoing. Many of the scenes we see – even if no special effects were employed – take Mundruczó’s vision too far. His vision also contains too many elements. White God focuses on an excellent idea: the abuse of dogs representing not only the abuses of animals, but also of children, minorities, foreigners, and more. Yet that idea is conveyed in metaphor, allegory and music, all of which become a bit overwhelming and, by the end of the film, heavy-handed.
Mundruczó also has too many other themes he wants to explore: social consciousness, family drama, postmodernism, and others. Had he focused on any one theme, White God might’ve been a much better film, but it perhaps wouldn’t have garnered all the attention it’s received.
Yet for all it’s problems, White God is still a remarkably effective film.
Mundruczó says of the film’s title:
“I wanted to place the film in a perspective where we understand that the dog is the symbol of the eternal outcast whose master is his god. I was always very interested in the characteristics of God. Is God really White? Or does each person have their own God? The White Man has proved countless times that he is only capable of ruling and colonizing. The linked words of the title harbor many contradictions, and that’s why I found it so fascinating.”
I find it fascinating as well, but I’m even more fascinated with the film’s theological implications. From the idea that if a dog’s master is its god, at what point does rebellion set in? If we consider this biblically, dogs are far more obedient to their masters than mankind was in the Garden of Eden (and continues to be now). Those abusing their dogs for profit certainly deserve to be rebelled against and can hardly be thought of as gods at all. Some animal owners are, of course, better and more humane than others. The same can be said of those in authority dealing with people who are downtrodden, marginalized, abused and ignored. Should such people rise up and rebel, would they be in rebellion against those abusing them, or against God or both?
Such a question also makes us think about loyalty and allegiance in general, whom we choose to give it to and how far it carries us. Those who truly believe in God understand (or should understand) that we don’t always get what we want, even if we are in complete obedience to God’s word. There are so many things that go on in the world that we don’t understand. Part of this is due to the fact that God’s ways are not our ways and that this world is a broken, fallen place. Without those two ideas to explain the evils of the world – and why evil and injustice continues to happen – I have no answer.
I also find it fascinating that Mundruczó chose for his title White God. This is, perhaps, a nod to director Samuel Fuller’s White Dog (1982), a film about a stray dog trained to attack black people. Yet Mundruczó’s film doesn’t seem to address race specifically, although most everyone in the film is caucasian. Had White God been made by an American director, its title would no doubt take on a whole different meaning, carrying cultural, social, theological and certainly political implications. Maybe Mundruczó is simply addressing problems he sees in Hungary, but again, its implications are powerful enough to touch us all, regardless of where we live.
Even though flawed, White Dog provides much food for thought. I’m sure that many people who start the film will not be able to finish it. I’m certainly not trying to congratulate myself for finishing it; I had to look away from many scenes. Yet despite the cruelty of the film and what I consider its narrative problems, White Dog is a powerful film from a talented filmmaker. The film is now available to stream on Netflix.
(First photo: Horror Movie News, others my own screenshots)