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Film Review | White God

Films with animal protagonists tend to be for kids, but this Hungarian high-concept thriller brutally - and brilliantly - upends these expectations. 

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
11 March 2015, 8:30am
Girl and her dog: Zsófia Psotta risks all to get her dog Hagen back in this award-winning Hungarian drama
Girl and her dog: Zsófia Psotta risks all to get her dog Hagen back in this award-winning Hungarian drama
Dogs trigger our emotional responses like nothing else. Animals in general, really: just recall the sheer vitriol unleashed on the Mosta ‘cat killer’ by the public lynch mob and, further back, the outpouring of pity and compassion during the tragic case of the long-suffering canine ‘Star’.

The film industry has of course capitalised on the emotional hold animals – particularly domestic animals like dogs – have over our collective psyche. Think of the countless talking animals that populate lucrative animation features each year, as well as the heartstring-tugging live action films about loyal pets and their – usually pre-teen – charges having to undergo some sort of dangerous quest.

But these films tend to exist in the maudlin sphere of ‘all ages’ cinema, where they scarcely – if ever – tackle weighty or challenging subject matter, much less subject the viewer or its protagonists (human or otherwise) to truly harrowing feats. This is partly because our hard-wired soft spot for animals on screen might not be able to take it: they’re effectively at our mercy, so any cruelty that comes their way would be doubly hard to take.

So it’s interesting and heartening to see that Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó pulls no punches in his quirky and tense high-concept drama White God – winner of the prestigious Un Certain Regard prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

 

When young Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is forced to give up her beloved dog Hagen because its mixed pedigree is deemed newly illegal by the Hungarian state, she and the dog begin to gravitate back towards each other. But Hagen’s journey takes a revolutionary turn, after he rallies together all the other rejected and downtrodden mutts of the country, to give their ‘masters’ a taste of their own medicine.

First things first: if the golden rule of drama is to never work with animals or children, this film breaks it with vengeance. Full credit goes to head trainer Teresa Miller for commandeering not just one dog, but an entire flotilla of them, without any help from the CGI department. The hard work has certainly paid off, as the dogs move seamlessly and dynamically, the choreography never devolving into cartoony contortions or slapstick.

But Mundruczó’s handling of the tone is to be commended across the board, especially given how the film switches from sentimental – and painful – fable about a lonely girl and her wandering dog, to a revenge thriller with traces of Hitchcock’s The Birds. Perhaps a mainstream American director, working off a Disneyfied brief, would have cut down on the harrowing ordeal both Hagen and some of his canine compatriots face, while giving the diminutive Lili a more involved romantic sub plot (a burgeoning relationship with a fellow music student is suggested, but never really forced to blossom).

Instead we get a variant of the Hollywood blockbuster that uses dogs instead of CGI aliens to wow its spectators, and which doesn’t shy away from causing grief to its animal-loving audience in its pursuit to tell a story that cuts to the quick.

But as both the film’s title – an allusion to 1982 race-relations allegory White Dog – and its introductory scene suggests, this isn’t done in the spirit of sadism. Rather, the film functions as both a thrilling tale of hardship bested and revenge had, while also standing as an inspired allegory for our (mis)treatment of the cultural other. Opening in a slaughterhouse where Lili’s father works, we see a cow being skinned and disembowelled – a graphic act made all the more harrowing by its industrial, and fully sanctioned, efficiency. The message is clear: our dominance over the animal species stands on ethically brittle foundations.

Similarly, the bureaucratic edging out of mixed breed dogs is a hardly subtle, but nonetheless effective mirror image of contemporary Europe, where far-right parties with little sympathy for ‘outsiders’ are elbowing their way into the political mainstream.

But this is a film that can be savoured beyond any links to the outside world – its own internal narrative engine is fierce, bold and endowed with the focused drive of a folk tale. It seems apt that a final deus ex machina – prefigured in a thrilling pre-credits sequence – recalls the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Great storytelling, and proof that European cinema is not all dour.

White God will be showing at Eden Cinemas until March 17

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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