White God (aka Fehér Isten) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Too long I have endured the endless onslaught of the cute dog movie vehicle. Be it an overly heartwarming tale of the mutt who saved Christmas or the canine companion who tragically ascends to doggy heaven, the dog genre of film has become a tired and repetitive joke. And then there are those rare instances where somebody finally makes a movie where a dog is used as more than just emotional fluff.
In the case of White God, we finally get to see a dog with real character and an arc. When the mixed-breed of Hagen finds himself forced onto the street by a rash father fed up with her daughter, he goes on a dangerous journey through mean streets of a Hungarian city. But there are no kind souls to help him get home. Everyone seems to be out to either exploit or murder Hagen. A group of dogcatchers seek to exterminate him. A hungry bum wants to sell him. A greedy gangster wants to train him for dog fights. And I can only assume the butcher wants to serve him up based on how he attacks him with a knife. On this adventure, Hagen is transformed from an average dog loyal to her master Lili to a savage beast who must kill to survive.
On the human side of the story is the unsure Lili, a girl on the brink of growing up with nobody to confide in. Forced to play the trumpet and scowled at by her parents, her only friend is Hagan - the only being that seems to actually appreciate her trumpet playing rather than find flaws. When her dog is removed from the picture, Lili finds herself headed down a dark path as well. Parties and drinking begin to become an escape as she struggles to find someone decent and caring in such an unforgiving world.
While Lili’s story is a solid one of a girl’s adolescence, it’s Hagen’s journey that steals the show and the entire third act. All of his scenes are displayed without narrating dialogue - a common method of such simple stories as Homeward Bound or Milo & Otis. Though I imagine that if there were voiceover for Hagen, it would most certainly be an actor akin to Ron Perlman or Liam Neeson. Hagen’s walk through the streets is a brutal filled with blood and death. You can slowly see the poor pooch become consumed by the world hate he is bred to live in. When forced to kill another dog for sport, he looks over the corpse of his opponent as a terrifying victory. By the time he is captured by a pound more than eager to put down their inmates, Hagen has come to terms with the kill-or-be-killed mentality.
It is then that the film takes a turn that could be incredibly silly as Hagen leads a legion of dogs into battle on his murderous path of revenge. Just watching the cold opening tease of the revolt gives the impression of this being a more sci-fi tale ala Planet of the Dogs. Thankfully, the dogs don’t take over the Earth nor do any dogs learn to speak the language of man. It’s just a group of pissed off animals who want to get bloody revenge on those who wronged them. And it’s a long list given the despicable nature of how humanity is portrayed in the film. With the exception of Lili, all humans hate dogs, hate children and are only looking out for themselves. It’s such a dark and gritty world that you really do hope Hagen and Lili make it through okay with all the scars they receive along the way.
White God has plenty of bark and bite to be one of the most unconventional movies about a dog you will ever see. It gets a little too over the top in trying to makes its world so grim that you sometimes want to look away from the brutality. But it’s a satisfying payoff for the development of both the human and dog actors - masterfully shot and emotionally engaging. And, for once, the emotions are not just about how sweet the dog looks or acts on camera. Hagen becomes as violent and angry as the film progresses that you’re more interested in what darker path the dog takes next rather than if he’ll survive. Maybe this is laying too many smarts on such a simple creature, but it’s far more entertaining to watch than just another plucky dog who wants his master or act as fodder for tears.