Hagen is a handsome youth who, through no fault of his own, is violently cast out from his family. Learning to survive on the streets with the help of other homeless, he finds there love and companionship. But mainstream society permits no place for Hagen or his friends; only exploitation or incarceration. This is the story of Hagen's revenge.
Kornél Mundruczó has done something wonderful with White God, Cannes 2014's Un Certain Regard award winner, because Hagen, the centre of this archetypal hero's journey, is a dog, a big brown mastiff cross-breed. Mundruczó’s film can be enjoyed on a number of levels: as an allegorical tale about oppression and injustice, as a coming-of-age story, as a love story, and as a dog story. The brilliance is that White Dog doesn't force any one of these readings on the audience: it offers them all up, and the viewer gets to choose.
Set in Budapest in the present day, it begins with 13 year old Lily and her dog Hagen. Their relationship is destroyed as a consequence of her parents' bitter divorce and the busybody neighbour. Without the only creature whose love she is assured, Lily (Zsofia Psotta) embarks on a fruitless quest to find her beloved dog. As Lily gradually descends into a downward spiral of alienation and rebellion, Hagen makes his way among his own kind, finding unexpected loyalty and solidarity.
At its heart, the film is about relationships. Lily cannot be sure of her relationships with her parents: her mother dumps her, and her father, clearly embittered, is uncomfortable and constantly irritable. Nor can she trust the shifting allegiances of her friends. Without Hagen, she is cast adrift. Hagen in turn discovers for the first time how brutal human beings are. Chased by a dog catcher, captured and sold to a dog fighter, and eventually incarcerated, Hagen continuously suffers at the hands of humans at all levels of society.
With its themes of love, loyalty and betrayal, White God plays out its allegory of the oppressed in a nuanced way, never didactic or preachy. We see very clearly how tribal identity operates, from the collaboration of the street dogs working together to escape their oppressors, to the unity of the humans who band together to contain the dogs. But Mundruczó points out the weakness of human solidarity compared to that of the dogs: humans appear to be cruel for the sake of it, or for gain. The nasty neighbour has no particular reason to be so unpleasant, yet she is. The criminals at the dogfight beat and rob each other. Even family and friends are unreliable.
Yet the story of exploitation is also a story of vengeance. The oppressed rise up, “like a well-regulated army” with Hagen as their general. The dogs mass across the city, and take their revenge. It is an eerie and frightening reminder of the simmering social tension experienced across much of the world at the present day, and the potential horror that it could bring. It reminds us that this is what revolution actually looks like, red in tooth and claw. Even if we feel sympathy for the dogs, it is still terrifying.
In interviews, Mundruczó has said that he started out wanting to make a film about the political situation in Hungary, but found to his surprise that instead he has made his first truly international film. Making White God also opened his eyes to the way animals are treated, and he says that making this film has changed him. One strong message the film carries is that the worse we treat the animals in our society, the worse we treat each other – and the worse we treat ourselves. The cruellest of the characters, the criminal dog fighter, also lives under the most unpleasant conditions.
White God may have a political subtext, but it is also a really good dog story. The expert work of dog handler Teresa Anne Miller is stunning, working with over 250 dogs, all of them from shelters (and now all adopted). The film’s action is dynamic, as the dogs race through the city, moving with the grace of a corps de ballet, and it is all made without CGI, just excellent camera work by Marcell Rév.
Combining animal fable with social critique, wrapped in a genuinely exciting thriller, White God will have huge appeal to the dog-loving British audience. In the screening I attended, there was a universal sigh of appreciation when the magnificent Hagen appeared on the screen, and much surreptitious eye-wiping during certain scenes. If sometimes Lily’s traumatic coming-of-age human story feels a little forced, Hagen’s dog story, his suffering and transformation into a canine Che Guevara, is heart-wrenching, uplifting and ultimately rewarding.
White God is available in the UK on DVD from August 3rd