Wednesday, April 15, 2015

White God

Perhaps just like Hagen, the mixed-breed canine headliner of Kornél Mundruczó's thrilling Hungarian parable White God, it's a little difficult to pin down the origins of this ambitiously staged morality play.  The film, which won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and was Hungary's official selection for last years' Academy Awards, wears multiple hats as an animal rights advocacy work, coming-of-age tale and revenge fantasy thriller.  With a title that draws to mind Samuel Fuller's 1982 race wars thriller White Dog and derives from a quote from J. M. Coetzee's post-apartheid novel Disgrace, White God proudly wears a wide range of influences upon its sleeve-- there's a hint of Planet of the Apes, a dash of Charles Bronson grade B-schlock, a peppering of Lassie Comes Home, even perhaps the raw ingredients of the Dardenne Brothers working class naturalism on display.  If all of these elements seems at odds with one another, well, they are.  Yet White God, in its messy and imperfect way is an utterly fascinating and vibrant piece of filmmaking, a difficult film to shake and one of the most unnerving thrillers in recent years.  I should probably mention here that the film is about a pack of dogs revolting in the streets of Budapest.  If that sounds a little ridiculous, well that's kind of true as well.

To Mundruczó's credit, he does stack the deck heavily in the favor of the pooches.  In White God, the majority of the humans are characterized as threats or obstacles to not just dogs but animal-kind in general-- some of the most potent pieces of imagery at the start of the film features freshly slaughtered cow flesh being judged for human consumption.  The inspector, we soon learn, is Dániel (Sándor Zsótér), a former professor turned meat grader who serves as the first obstacle for Hagen, a bulky yet cuddly mutt, the star of White God (played by Luke and Body, twin Labrador-mixes).  The one human grace note in the film is Lili (Zsófia Psotta), Hagen's 13-year-old custodian and bestie.  Early scenes bring to mind the golden nostalgia of children and their beloved pets, something Mundruczó undercuts with the continued tease of tension.  Circumstances bring the two at the door of her estranged father Dániel, a combustible mixture of an ill-attuned parent and a girl on the cusp of womanhood full of resentment-- Hagen gets it the worst in the end.

Hagen is first put in danger due to a penalty tax placed on the ownership of mixed breed dogs (inspired by a real Hungarian act that didn't, in the end, pass), a fee Dániel has no interest in paying.    An especially terse argument between father and daughter leaves Hagen abandoned and on his own on the streets of Budapest, a sequence that's one of the most emotionally punishing in the entire film.  This in it of itself opens the door to the heavier allegorical sensibilities Mundroczó is presenting in the movie.  Hagen can be viewed as a stand-in for any marginalized group used and abused in a corrupt system lending the film a sense of urgency, activism and universality.  If all of this reads a bit heavy-handed, well, it is-- White God isn't a work of subtlety, yet its broad strokes (even if they sometimes overreach) are certainly well-intentioned.

The fun of White God, and I use the term loosely as the film is not at all an easy sit (especially for viewers who, like myself, were traumatized by the Disney-approved Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey as a child) is when Hagen finally stands up to his oppressors.  The build-up is White God's trickiest narrative task and its most problematic.  Mundruczó chooses to split the narrative evenly between Hagen and Lili, showcasing in nearly classical Dickensian fashion their various struggles and their hopes of reuniting.  Hagen wanders the streets making allies with other neighborhood strays and eventually finds himself in the hands of a scummy trainer who plucks him into the world of dog fighting-- these are most difficult sequences to watch.  Lili wanders the streets and argues with her father and while Psotta does a lovely job of holding the screen, it's in her story that the film starts to drag a bit-- for instance, lengthy stretches of her eccentric music teacher (she's a young trumpet player) and a flirtation with a slightly older classmate belong in another film.  After all, even the recent Planet of the Apes movies recognize that Caesar is the star.  While the parallel stories cement the theme of troubling authority figures-- either misguided and straight-out villainous-- White God likely should have been a tight and slender 90-minute feature versus the somewhat bloated two hour edition.

Many of the detours make the film more fascinating in retrospect, especially as White God nears its manic, wondrously staged climax-- where Hagen with the assist of over two-hundred strays and freed pound dogs (the film employed real dogs and according to the filmmakers all were of mixed breeds) wreck havoc on the streets of Budapest.  Using Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds as a clear template, Mundroczó stages the events with utmost tension, sharp editing and a breathtaking sense of "How'd they do that" awe.  Yet there's something canny, and perhaps, almost meta in the uprising of the canines-- there's a bit of a Harry Callahan "make my day" machismo is how Hagen is presented during his first big protest.  While there were guffaws at my screening from time to time, I'm under the impression the filmmakers were in on the joke even though the film is often quite stern and darkly serious for the most part.  Whatever the impression, the filmmaking is impressive especially considering that digital trickery was apparently at a minimum.

On that note, Hagen, with his medium build and expressive green eyes, makes a particularly sharp screen presence on his own.  Considering White God doesn't make any attempt to anthropomorphize the dogs (their lips don't digitally move, there's no voice over thoughts), Hagen has to carry the movie on his four legs.  It helps that the film carries its considerable pro-animal message proudly throughout even though it features many scenes of dogs in danger-- clever editing tricks, the proliferation of waging tails and a behind-the-scenes featurette suggest the canines were never in harms way.  All of which leads to an extraordinary grace note that serves as the final shot of the feature-- a wistful and beautifully composed image that tugs at the heart in pure, near Spielberg-ian fashion.  One that unites father and daughter, girl and friend, dog and army and gives its audience and its characters a joyful respite from the inevitable.

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