A Shaggy Revolution
With all the cinemas still shut, the column continues to ping-pong between new streaming releases and weird old movies… or, in this week's subject, weird relatively recent movies. Kornel Mundruczo's White God, originally released in 2014, opens with a rather lovely aerial shot of a seemingly-deserted city, which I presume is Budapest (this is a Hungarian production). Gradually we become aware of a single moving figure in the great urban expanse – a teenage girl (Zsofia Psotta), riding her bicycle. (There is a trumpet sticking out of her backpack, incongruously enough.)
The question of what is going on begins to be answered very soon, although it is not an answer which is particularly helpful: the girl, whom we eventually learn is called Lili, is being chased by dogs. But just one or two dogs. Not even a pack of six or seven or a dozen. Hundreds of dogs of all shapes and sizes are pursuing her through the streets of the apparently empty city.
My default position is to be rather disparaging about films which open with this kind of striking sequence and then jump back to days or weeks earlier to show how we ended up in this situation. With a TV show or a book, where the audience may have come across it by chance and may not be fully committed, fair enough: hook them in. But for a movie? Come on. They've already bought their ticket and popcorn and settled in. This kind of tease is surely not necessary.
Except when it's really well done, of course. The opening of White God (as far as I can tell this is a fridge title, by the way) is certainly well done enough, and, like the rest of the movie, scores impressively high on the 'well, I've never seen anything quite like this before'.
The plot proper begins with Lili's mother having to go to Australia for her work for three months, obliging Lili to go and live with her cold and distant father, Daniel (Sandor Zsota). This would be awkward enough – Daniel's flat is so small that the two of them have to share a bedroom – but the situation is exacerbated by the fact that Lili, naturally, insists on bringing her dog Hagen with her (Hagen is played by two other dogs, named Bodie and Luke).
It turns out that the Hungarian government has recently imposed a special tax on non-purebreed dogs (just go with it, I guess), and naturally Hagen is a mongrel. This is the last straw for Daniel, who turns Hagen out of the car on a busy road and drives off.
So far, so very much like a whole load of weepy melodramas about dogs and their young owners – but even up to this point, the film has had a bleak, hard edge to it, suggesting things may take a slightly different path. So it proves, as the narrative splits – one strand follows Lili's attempts to find Hagen, rebelling against her father and getting into trouble as she does so. This isn't a barrel of laughs, but it's still lighter than the travails of Hagen, who is variously hunted and exploited by the human beings he encounters, eventually being sold to a man who trains him to take part in dog-fighting bouts. (There is a degree of grisliness involved, but the film almost goes out of its way to indicate no animals were harmed, etc.) Hagen ends up being grabbed and taken to the pound, but there's only so much that a dog can take before he snaps…
As readers of long standing will know, I usually avoid lazy 'this film is like X meets Y' formulations, but the temptation to describe White God as 'Lassie meets Rise of the Planet of the Apes' is irresistible (obviously). Soon enough Hagen is leading a horde of warrior mongrels into the city, intent on a terrible revenge against human civilisation…
Well, as I said: the film does score highly on the 'not seen this in a movie before' front, and the storytelling is very well done, considering that quite long stretches of the film feature no dialogue whatsoever. The radical shifts in the narrative – from girl-and-her-dog melodrama, to the bleak and naturalistic mid-section, to the slightly surreal fantasy-horror of the closing stages – are very adroitly handled as well. Nor should one overlook the contribution made by the two lead actors – Zsofia Psotta in particular gives an impressively self-possessed performance.
The truth is, while novelty isn't everything when it comes to a story, genuine novelty can take you a surprisingly long way. I can understand why the makers of the film decided to open with the flash-forward to the third act: seeing how we get from an ordinary, rather downbeat domestic drama to one of the more surreal movie apocalypses of recent years is the film's main point of traction.
That said, once the doggie apocalypse gets going, there's an element of slightly self-conscious weirdness to the film that stops it from being completely successful and immersive as either a drama or a piece of horror – perhaps it's there all along, albeit as manneredness rather than weirdness. Possibly even the writers and director are aware that suggesting a canine rebellion could put a whole city into lockdown and lead to the army being called out.
Beyond that, I'm also slightly curious as to what the moral premise of the movie is. There's clearly some kind of subtext about animal rights going on – Daniel appears to be some kind of quality control inspector at an abattoir, and we get to see various scenes showing what goes on there (knives and bone saws are prominent). Clearly, if everyone had been nicer to Hagen from the start, things would have worked out differently – but is the subtext and fundamental message of the film really just 'be nicer to dogs'? I rather think it might be, in which case we kind of have to conclude that White God is ultimately quite facile.
But, as noted, for all that it may be a slightly odd and simplistic fable, White God is well directed and performed, with sterling work in particular from the animal trainers. It's certainly worth watching simply for its sheer 'you what…?' value.