White God is a coat of many colors. It is an allegory, a horror movie, a science fiction tale and a satire, placing dogs in the role of oppressed humans to address animalistic aggressions. In every society there is a desire to control. There is also a resistance to that control, and thus we have the two primary building blocks of conflict.
Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó offers up this tension in three forms: a divorced father and his pubescent daughter; that daughter and her elders; and between man and animal. Each relationship is one of controller and controlled, and each conflict comes from the controlled bucking the system.
While the first two relationships, anchored beautifully by 13-year-old newcomer Zsófia Psotta as Lili, provide grounding in this fairy tale, most of White God’s running time involves the allegory of man and dog. Hagen (played by two identical littermates, Luke and Body) is Lili’s beloved pet, but her father refuses to pay his steep mongrel tax. Mixed-breed mutts are looked down upon, and when Dad gets the chance, he abandons Hagen on the side of the road.
In another movie, this might set up Lili and Hagen’s Homeward Bound search for each other, but Mundruczó makes no attempts to anthropomorphize Hagen or any of the other 274 dogs used in the making of White God. He doesn’t need to. Hagen conveys more emotion than most of the human counterparts, and when Hagen is taken in and trained by a professional dog fighter (a tough bit of business to sit through), we understand Hagen’s emotional arc with perfect clarity. When Hagen breaks free from his captors and leads a revolt of dogs through the streets of Budapest, it is not an absurd image but a sublime one.
No animals were harmed in the making of this movie, but if you find visual depictions of animal cruelty difficult to stomach, then White God will not be your cup of tea, and that is precisely Mundruczó’s game. Had he told this story with human beings, it would have conveyed the same ideas but lost the emotional impact. Possibly because audience members have become desensitized to the filmmaking process, we know, instinctually, that the person getting shot on camera did not die and was not injured. But we aren’t so sure when it comes to animals. We see the animal lying on the ground, red and wet, whimpering and whiny, and our heart sinks. Never mind that the dog has been trained to lie down on cue, that it has been covered in red syrup, and that the whimpering we are hearing is on the soundtrack.
An injured animal elicits a great deal of sympathy, which is why Mundruczó uses dogs to tell his tale of travesty. This is a topic he wants the audience to sit up and take notice of, and if it takes dogs to do that, then dogs it is.