Kornel Mundruczó’s White God ("Fehér isten") is the sort of film critics love to overpraise: we know, deep down, that most anyone who takes the time and effort to see it will probably be predisposed to appreciate it. Plus, the increasing length of time between when foreign language films play on the festival circuit and when, if ever, they are made available for mass audiences, also means that barring some sort of Twitter or Letterboxd trolling, critics are shielded from pushback against elevated encomiums.
Critical grade inflation can have its down side, though. Increasingly, when I work my way around to a highly buzzed film that I missed on the festival circuit, I find myself thinking, “That was nice, but . . . ” Films I might have liked more if I’d approached them with modest expectations end up getting punished for not being great, transformative, or overwhelming.
White God is none of those things, but it’s not a poor movie. A genre-mashing tale that mixes elements of Planet of the Apes, Lassie Come Home, The Birds, The Great Escape, and Heart of Darkness, the film is brimming with interesting ideas and never far from a powerful image.
Thirteen year-old Lili and her dog Hagen are dropped off with her father so that her mom and stepdad can attend an academic conference. Dad doesn’t want to pay a fee to keep an unregistered pet in his apartment, so he forces Lili to choose: Hagen can be turned in to animal control, where he will most likely get put down, or he can be released on the street to fend for himself.
Lili chooses life—or at least the slim chance of it—over a humane death, and then she plays hooky from band practice to search for her lost loved one. Meanwhile, Hagen avoids the dog catchers, only to be captured and sold to dog fighters. The scenes where Hagen is reprogrammed are as painful as those in which he is forced to fight.
The film’s final act—not really a spoiler here; White God begins at its climax and then flashes backward in time to explain how events unfolded to get to that point—deals with Hagen leading the outcasts of Budapest on a wild rampage through the streets in order to . . . do what exactly?
The fact that I still don’t know how to finish that sentence is perhaps indicative of the film’s biggest weakness: it is allegorical to the point of abstraction.
We get numerous shots of meat being butchered or cooked which are meant, I suppose, to invite us contemplate why we are horrified about some forms of animal cruelty, but not others. That Hagen and the dogs are meant to symbolize Lili and the children (neglected, unwanted, abused) is more or less confirmed by the director, who says in the film’s press notes that “in the film, a girl on the brink of adolescence must lose her innocence in the same way the dogs do.”
These parallels were most clear to me in the scenes where Lili ends up at a rave-like party and the blaring music and flashing strobe lights are not all that different from some of the tortures one might see in Zero Dark Thirty. Just as Hagen is being broken down to accept his new role in society, so too are Lili and her peers being stripped of the thin layers of civilized social acculturation.
Finally, the film’s title implies a theological statement of sorts, with Lili and Hagen taking on the role of Romantic Promethean figures who are subject to the abuses of a mythical, tyrannical God. Kornél Mundruczó says of the 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.
Each of these theses finds expression in the film, but none is developed with a consistent point of view. Hagen’s scenes have some deft camera work and editing, but the places in which they cut from the dog’s perspective to that of a human looking at the dog and then to that of an invisible observer of both (God?) was either without rhyme or reason or too subtle for me to understand.
The film spends its first half implying that humans, like animals, are simply products of our environment, but it then posits in its second half that those same animals have a social and moral consciousness that allows them to differentiate between their potential human victims. It was not to the film’s advantage that its late gestures towards anthropomorphizing the animals reminded me of Timothy Treadwell, the crazy center of Werner Herzog’s brilliant and disturbing Grizzly Man. Treadwell, like Lili, was resolute in the belief that if you love an animal enough, it will not turn on you, no matter how badly others abuse it or fear it.
Last month, I happened to be holding my cat, Fannie, a beloved family pet for over fifteen years. As she purred softly, my wife tried to clip her back claws, something she has done several times without incident. Suddenly, Fannie hissed and punched me hard in the face, slashing the bridge of my nose and leaving a smaller scar on my left cheek. Had I not been wearing my glasses, she may have gotten my eyeball as well.
I would like to think that the connection I have with Fannie is every bit as deep as that between Lili and Hagen, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking. Scientists currently believe that dogs were domesticated before cats, so perhaps Hagen’s greater resistance to fear and abuse (whether real or imagined), can be rationalized.
But I’d like to offer a counter explanation. Perhaps White God is doing some wishful thinking of its own. Maybe the ineradicable, brutish nobility projected onto Hagen is as problematic an oversimplification as the cruel indifference projected onto those the film equates with God.
White God is rated “R,” primarily for violence to and from animals. I counted at least one strong expletive, though its impact always seems diffused when spoken in another language and read off the subtitles. The hardest scene to take is that of Hagen ripping the throat of one human. (There is some blood spurt there, and we see the aftermath of animal violence several times.)
I can’t imagine too many young teens or tweens petitioning their parents to let them see a Hungarian film while Insurgent and Home are in the theaters, but if you have an adolescent who is a dog lover and who gets smitten with the poster, consider yourself strongly cautioned. The scenes in which Hagen is trained for and participates in dog fighting, while not as brutal as they could be, are plenty brutal enough. There are two brief scenes of Lili getting dressed or undressed, and while there was no nudity or sexual contact depicted, they were filmed in such a way as to make me question whether there was meant to be an incest-abuse subtext here. (Dad asks Lili which bed she wants to sleep in and she has to remind him to turn around after he orders her to put on her nightgown. Is there some unspoken reason she is desperate to have Hagen in the bedroom and he is equally adamant that the dog be banished?) Teen alcohol and drug (ab)use is also depicted and/or implied.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.