Up, Dog!: White God

03/25/2015 7:57 AM |
photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

White God
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó
Opens March 27

Taking more than one cue from the George Lucas “Just strangle a kitten!” school of tension-building, Kornél Mundruczó’s Un Certain Regard-winner White God straddles studio-canvas tentpole filmmaking with remarkable assuredness. The film winks on occasion in naturalism’s direction (albeit a more Greengrassian type than Bressonian, despite White God having received many comparisons for animal suffering, I guess, with Au Hasard Balthazar). The plot follows Lila (Zsófia Psotta), a preteen girl coping with her parents’ divorce in a gloomy, permanently overcast Budapest, and her friendship with—and inevitable separation from—her Mom’s dutiful mutt Hagen. A special tax on “mongrels” (mixed-breed dogs) sees Lila’s father summarily kicking the animal to the curb; his lack of awareness of what makes Lila happy sure sucks the dramatic air out of their myriad later scenes, with him angrily trying to communicate with her. If Hagen is Lila’s reason to live, she’s lucky to even know that, while the dog is meanwhile adopted by derelicts and mobsters, soon drugged into training as a prizefighter.

This is a movie pitched directly at kid-level reasoning, even if the savagery of its grown-ups is for adults’ eyes only. In White God’s inevitable narrative cul-de-sac of separation and reunion, Hagen losing his sense of compassion and, for a time, being “broken” is its most intriguing passage; whenever these savage beatings and starved nights are intercut with Lila storming out of her junior orchestra classroom or being led around by an unmistakably abusive older boy, the film dilutes itself by half. If the canine rebellion—with unleashed dogs flooding the city’s abandoned boulevards, leaping through the air, punching their human masters in the face with their own faces—comprised more than about ten minutes of its runtime, Mundruczó’s Disney-grade screenwriting would ring less obvious. That the film is a parable for illegal immigration (a tectonic issue in contemporary Hungarian politics) can’t excuse its heavy-handedness; in many ways, it makes it an even further-missed opportunity.