Late in the Hungarian White God, Kornél Mundruczó’s brave and tantalizing film, comes an image that strikes many viewers as strangely familiar.
The representative of an oppressive regime stands face-to-face with one sweet-tempered, innocent creature whom herself and the rest of the class have turned into a threatening monster. It is then that she realizes the monster has broken free of its chains. The monster in question is a mixed-breed dog and the representative of oppressiveness is a pound’s owner. This is main theme in Mundruczó’s film, which takes place in gray-cast Budapest split between the grotesquerie of callous humans and the fugitive strays over which they exercise unchecked power.
Along the lines of Robert Bresson’s saint-like donkey in Au hasard Balthazar, much of the film can be seen as a report on abuses. Hagen is abandoned by the teenage owner’s divorced father, who refuses to pay a tax recently imposed on keepers of no-purebred dogs (read: “mongrel”). Succesively, he’s abused by a butcher, a pair of dogcatchers, a cartoonishly ghastly homeless man, a sadistic dogfighter, and the slightly more sympathetic owner of the city’s animal shelter, long resigned, you sense, by the fact that she can’t have them all saved.
Humans, themselves, are weirdly thin and without texture, as if the generous attention and screen time given to canines worked at their expense. The best scenes in White God betray Hagen’s solidarity with street dogs; surely, no recent fiction film has conveyed with such respect the way animals interact on their own terms. These passages constitute the movie’s great dramatic experiment, and you sense that they drew Mundruczó’s attention
away from the cross-cutting scenes showing Lili (Zsófia Psotta), Hagen’s adolescent owner, and her disappointed, embittered dad (Sándor Zsótér).
Equally intriguing is Hagen’s interaction with his human abusers, who, at times, attribute to the animal an unexpected depth of feeling. “He doesn’t hate us,” one dogcatcher says to another when Hagen licks the man’s hand. “You’ve still got a soul,” the dog is told some time later by the man who imprisons, beats and forces him to kill.
Mundruczó’s film is at its most interesting when it introduces this sort of speech and manifests its inner violence. One of the movie’s strengths, like in Balthazar, is the recognition of the main hero’s dead-end status; there’s a limit as to the access permitted to whatever Hagen’s “inner life” might be. The dog’s inner state is addressed in White Dog through abuse and abusive behaviour. Mind you, the film occasionally foists ill-fitting psychological
motivations on Hagen, himself.
This is Balthazar by way of Frankenstein, of which Mundruczó, not so long ago, directed a loose, contemporary adaptation. The final sequence of White God, wherein Hagen leads the rest of the city’s mutts to uprise against human oppression, is the culmination of dread provoked by this narrative of abuse. Like in most cinematic depictions of revolt or revenge, White Dog addresses a society which by spurning and abusing the Other ends up turning the Other precisely into the threat perceived initially. If White God is a sympathetic movie in principle—an invitation to take responsibility for creating our own monsters—it’s less sympathetic in practice, if only because of the climactic dogs’ onslaught, an aspect of vindictiveness.
Moving on revenge fantasy’s ground, we witness the morally bankrupt getting their grisly comeuppance and the avenging, inhuman victims being well scary.