White God is an astounding, crushing film, like nothing I've seen before, and everyone with eyes, ears and courage should run to the Roxy and see it immediately. It begins innocently enough as a kind of bleak, coming-of-age story about a young teenager and her dog, but then fate conspires to tear them apart. Humans levy one cruel blow after another until enough is enough and a group of dogs seek revenge. Is it an allegory for certain disenfranchised human populations at the hands of a racist majority? Certainly. But for my money, the dogs themselves evoke sympathy enough, and no need to analogize the injustice further.
When we first meet Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her dog Hagen, Lili's mother is passing her off to her father (Sándor Zsótér) to live for three months in his tiny flat in Budapest. Dad was a professor once but now he's got a revolting job doing quality control at a slaughterhouse, which is just to say this guy's not an animal lover and seems less than thrilled that Lili brought a large mutt to live with them. Turns out mixed-breed dogs are subject to extra fees in Hungary, and their neighbor immediately reports the pup to authorities. Dad's not willing to pay the fine, and after some terse discussion, he winds up throwing the dog out of the car in a sketchy field near some abandoned railroad tracks.
Now the story splits between Hagen out on the street and Lili left to navigate her unfair teenage life without him. Hagen meets other street dogs that are constantly hunted by dogcatchers. He eludes capture, only to later be picked up and trained to kill for sport and profit. A lot of research went into a realistic depiction of the underground Hungarian dogfighting industry, apparently, and these progressions of scenes are nothing short of incredible. Hagen begins his journey so lost and scared, and then one bad thing happens to him after another, until it's easy to see how a dog's personality might change over time from happy and trusting to fearful and aggressive, and then finally, vengeful.
Twin dogs Rock and Body play Hagen, who looks like sort of a mix between a Shar Pei and German shepherd. (Casting agents found them on the way to the shelter in Arizona.) I'm not being cute when I say these pups are giving Oscar-worthy performances. These dogs have serious range. Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó wrote and directed the movie, and it's a great achievement in both visual style and tone, never mind the challenge of working with so many non-human actors.
The final moments are fantastical, but the scenes leading up to the end are more or less rooted in realism; when the story culminates with a pack of more than 200 dogs running wild in the streets of downtown Budapest, we are fully prepared to believe in it, and more than that, root for them. These scenes are all the more amazing when you find out they used real dogs in the actual space with little to no CGI or green screen technology. The film employs 274 dogs total, all of them mixed-breed rescues; if you stay to the end you'll see each of them listed by name in the credits.
I got my 8-year-old Rottweiler, Dorothy, five months ago, after her usefulness as a breeder expired. She is my destiny and my soul mate and our love for each other is palpable and real. At this point, if Dorothy killed my own mother, I think I'd find a way to forgive her. There's something special and unique about a lonely girl and her dog, and it's not a bond to be trifled with. Let this movie be a lesson.
White God screens at the Roxy Fri., May 15–Sun., May 17, at 7 PM nightly.