Mar 30, 2015

White God

This remarkable Hungarian film should come with a disclaimer for those who are sensitive to the plight of animals: it is an intense, sometimes harrowing experience starring Hagen, a handsome mutt who is abandoned and left to his own devices in a society that is callous towards animals.
A new law states that mutts that are not pure Hungarian breeds must be reported to the authorities or taken to the pound. The parable about a fascist, racist state is quite transparent, but director Kornél Mundruczó transcends the political metaphor by embracing the power of genre, and creates an action-adventure film starring a most charismatic canine hero, played by two handsome dogs, Luke and Body.
Lili, an elfin teenager who plays the trumpet in a youth orchestra, loves Hagen and wants to keep him, but her father, with whom she is staying while her mother decamps for Switzerland with her new beau, doesn't want to have anything to do with the dog. A nasty neighbor claims Hagen bit her, and the dad abandons the dog in the middle of a freeway. Soon, Hagen finds a bunch of street dogs who band together and elude the police that wants to round them up and take them to the pound. Meanwhile, Lili desperately looks for Hagen, but as a teenager, she has limited resources and after a while she gets used to life without him.
His fate is terrible. Rescued by a homeless man, he is sold to a trainer for dog fights. The trainer reminded me of the nazis: so much effort and ingenuity for such useless, destructive purposes. These scenes will make you sick to your stomach. But it's a matter of time until Hagen finds his way to Lili again. Yet before he goes back to her, he and his buddies have plenty of scores to settle. And do they ever. This is a revenge fantasy for dogs.
Body and Luke, who play Hagen, and the two dogs who play his sweet sidekick Marlene, are incredibly trained animal actors. Their fellow canine colleagues, 250 of them, are all real dogs from a pound in Budapest, and are extremely photogenic as well. Astonishingly, Mundruczó does not use computer graphics or animatronics in the powerful scenes with the dogs, which are extraordinary precisely because of the lack of digital effects. Cinematographer Marcell Rév shoots the dogs beautifully and they, in turn, naturally chew the scenery. The movie is extremely well crafted, considering its unreliable actors.
Alas, Mundruczó embraces the action genre contrivances far too fervently. I wish he hadn't strained the story to manipulate the audience. Once the dogs rebel, and the sequence of feral dogs running amok over Budapest is spectacular, it would have been more honest not to let it drag on.  Lily plays trumpet at a concert as the dogs roam the city. The artificial back and forth distracts the audience out of this magnificently staged illusion and reminds us that someone is pulling the strings with quite a heavy hand. There are big plot holes and too much reliance on genre cliches, but the director redeems himself with a powerful ending, and with the fact that all the pound dogs were placed in homes after their work in the film. Even with its flaws, it is a unique and spectacular film.

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