“White God” is the kind of film that you’re likely to think you have all figured out once you hear its basic premise: a coming-of-age story involving a pre-teen girl and her dog, a “Homeward Bound” for the age of War Horse.
What you might not be expecting is that Hungarian writer-director Kornél Mundruczó has a lot more on his mind and his plate than just another coming-of-age story. God transcends typical genre characterization and instead opts to be a cinematic collage of sorts; a darkly comedic action thriller, a socially aware post-apocalypse, a coming-of-age story, an advocation for animal rights, and even a bit of a horror film. It may not be easy to characterize in the broad strokes and it’s not for the squeamish, but that’s precisely what makes White God such a uniquely compelling yet scattershot experience.
The film centers around a girl named Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her mixed breed dog Hagen, who she’s forced to give up when she moves in with her father. Hagen and Lili both go through their respective character arcs at a close parallel; Hagen is revealed to be an acutely self-aware dog who runs through the streets with a group of other mutts before being kidnapped by a dog fighter and forced through the abusive and straining regimen. Lili, a trumpet player in her school’s orchestra, undergoes a trial by fire of her own when she follows a friend to a rave and continues to butt heads with her stubborn father, all while searching for Hagen.
Both of their stories are so densely layered with characters, locations, and important goings-on that it often feels that Mundruczó is spreading himself a little too thin. After all, the film is supposed to be a commentary on the state of contemporary Hungary’s government. And if we’re being honest, some of the fat from both stories could’ve been trimmed. But at their best, the respective yarns hit your heart like a puppy inside of a Pop Tarts box.
Hagen is played by two different dogs, one for the more docile scenes, and one for the more physical/intimidating scenes, and both pups put in enough work to melt even the most stone covered hearts in the audience. The dog trainers involved with White God deserve special mention, as they pulled hundreds of dogs off of the street and managed to train them to the point of creating chase scenes through the Hungarian streets that would rival any from Bullit.
By the time the film makes the transition from scrappy pals in the streets to (simulated) canine bloodshed to a literal dog uprising, the fact that it’s traveled through just about every mainstream genre imaginable to get there is hardly noticed; influences run the gamut from War Horse to Cujo to Planet of the Apes and 28 Days Later, and Mundruczó’s tight directorial hand mostly maintaining coherence throughout is a tonal marvel. He’d be a good inclusion for the Planet of the Apes franchise, depending on where it’s headed after the third part hits screens next year.
White God is an easy film to recommend because it has so many cinematic bases covered: a fluid yet consistent sense of tone, immaculate cinematography, some decent gore effects, and a smart-minded screenplay that’s grounded yet fantastical enough to avoid becoming portentous. The human stars, including Psotta as Lili, wind up with the shorter end of the stick in terms of exposure, though the entire cast is game and commits to a bittersweet ending. This is Mundruczó’s fifth feature film, an award-winning Cannes screener, and the Hungarian entry for this year’s Foreign Language Film Academy Award, and I’m glad that it’s shaping up to become his first big break.