“Everything terrible is something that needs our love,” runs the text (cited from Rilke) with which White God opens – and then a sequence from near the film’s chronological end arrests the viewer with the sort of ‘terrible’ scenario that is coming: a girl cycles through Budapest’s deserted streets, chased by a pack of baying dogs.
Flash back, and we learn that the girl is 13-year-old Lili (Zsofia Psotta) – split between her divorced parents, negotiating the boundaries of childhood and adolescence, and preferring the company of her white-furred mongrel Hagen to that of her father Daniel (Sándor Zsótér). Left with Daniel while her mother studies abroad, Lili finds Hagen becoming the focus of all her father’s unhappiness and aggression. Unable to comprehend his daughter’s love for the dog and unwilling to pay a new, arbitrary tax on half-breed dogs, Daniel spitefully abandons Hagen in the street, setting in motion a sequence of events that will lead to political and emotional apocalypse.
Thankfully missing the memo about working with children or animals, director Kornél Mundruczó (Delta) has crafted an astonishing live-action fable in a dog-eat-dog world. Here the abuse, exploitation and persecution of Hagen by Daniel and others will inspire a spectacular canine uprising that figures, allegorically, the revenge of the underclass and the return of the repressed. Even as Hagen and his fellow hounds commit acts of revolutionary Terror and carry out targeted killings that seem more human- than dog-like, Lili’s own rebellious coming-of-age runs in parallel – and so the dogs, though a breath-taking reality on screen, are also a multivalent metaphor for the clash between humanity and bestiality within any state or individual.
Mundruczó follows the cruel injustices that Hagen must endure at the hands of a succession of masters, and carefully frames the dogs’ subsequent assault on the city as righteous vengeance – and yet he confounds the viewer’s sympathies by allowing Daniel’s humanity and love for his daughter gradually to emerge from a façade of callous monstrousness, so that in the end we are not sure where to side in the final confrontation between man and dog – until, that is, Lili tames everyone’s anger, however temporarily.
White God is a sociopolitical parable, with its four-legged frondeurs standing in for any marginalised, mistreated underdogs. Yet at the same time this remains a drama of a more domesticated variety. “It’s hard to lose someone you love,” Daniel tells Lili. His words refer to his estranged wife, and are meant as an apology of sorts for his recent conduct – but they also apply equally to Lili herself and her feelings for the dog that Daniel has himself removed from her. There’s a legacy of loss here, passed down and learnt from one generation to the next, and while Lili still clings to her innocence, we suspect that she will soon grow out of it, in the face of the bleaker realities closing in.
Although Mundruczó has denied that his film’s title alludes to Sam Fuller’s White Dog (1982), in fact both works focus on dogs taught bad behaviour by humans. Yet perhaps the closest model for White God is Robert Bresson’s tale of donkey martyrdom Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). Here too, a brutalised creature is brought back to love by a mystic, moving grace note.