* * 1/2
Dir. Kornel Mundruczo ,2015
The first line I wrote for this review was, “this shaggy dog story is a mutt of a movie,” perhaps out of appreciation for the bad-puntastic style of the late Gene Shalit and thinking that he’d have enjoyed the dog related puns that it presented. But I, sadly, decided against doing this whole review in that style. Like the following review, the White God started out promising but goes all over the place, doing some things well and failing at others.
White God makes two questionable decisions before the opening title card. First, Mundruczo dedicates this film to Miklos Jancso, perhaps the greatest Hungarian director (he passed away last year). Dedications aren’t exactly a bad decision, especially in smaller national cinemas, but the way the dedication is presented by such a young director prior to a film feels somewhat presumptuous, or suggests a far more Jancso-esque film. Second, Mundruczo plays his strongest card, the iconic image of the film of Lili riding down an empty street with a pack of dogs chasing her, out of sequence as a “how did we get here?” framing device. Once again, not a bad idea, but it speaks to the uneven nature of the film’s tone; the majority of the film is very tonally different from the one we get here and at the end.
For people like me who occasionally mix up letters, the title, White God, can easily be mistaken for White Dog (the title of a Sam Fuller film and one of the finest exploitation films ever made-a title that kind of makes more sense, except it doesn’t because the lead dog here isn’t white), is about Lili, a troubled young tween who is forced to stay with her dad after her mother leaves for an academic conference. Lili and her father don’t quite get along, for reasons that aren’t made clear beyond teenage angst stuff and her pet dog Hagen only makes matters more tense. So, her dad abandons the dog in the street to prove a point (he won’t pay a fee to keep it in his apartment so Lili took it to her Whiplash-esque orchestra class). The film then shifts to give us Hagen’s tough life where he meets up with an adorable show-stealing terrier who is kind of the diminutive Artful Dodger of Budapest’s stray dog population, gets captured, has miserable experiences, and then ultimately gets revenge.
That synopsis actually suggests that the different elements in the film have more unity than they actually do. Missing from my synopsis are chunks of Lili being an angsty teenager. And that’s the major problem with this film: it’s human characters don’t work. Lili and her father are basically stock characters from the big book of European art films. We aren’t given enough about them to make their relationship arc satisfying. And while the film seems to be interested in the nature of dog behavior, what is learned and what is inherent, it doesn’t put as much thought into why its human characters do what they do. The film has some awesome moments in it that make it worth watching and all of them involve the dogs, and the film should have focused itself through them, like Annaud did the titular Bear in his 1988 film.
As my Shalit-esque lead suggests, the film tries to be a lot of different things but doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it an allegory for society? The whole mutt tax thing is dropped far too quickly, in that case. Is it paralleling Lili and Hagen’s lives to say it’s a “hard world for little things”? If so, this doesn’t work because Hagen suffers from institutional violence and oppression while Lili is just going through growing pains as a middle-class teen. Is it a warning that our mistreatment of animals will come back to bite (not sure if pun) us? If that’s the case it raises a major ethical question about using its dogs in potentially dangerous circumstances on film (while it does some clever editing, there are a few instances where we see dogs take some hard falls). In its busy pre-title segment it tells us that all of the dogs used in the film were later adopted but it doesn’t quite say that no animals were harmed, and while I’m not sure about in Europe, recent studies in the US have shown that the AHA’s “no animals were harmed” disclaimer/certificate doesn’t really mean anything about animal safety.
The film tries to be all of those things but doesn’t do any of them particularly well, and there are other films that do those things so perfectly[fn1] that I’m not sure I needed them in another package. There are also some laughably bad moments that seem like they could be considered parodies of American sci-fi/action films but Mundruczo’s realist style doesn’t provide enough distance, and the tone isn’t established, to make them read like anything else than he’s just using Hollywood cliches. In fact, the film is structurally similar to Luc Besson’s Unleashed (aka Danny the Dog), that movie where Jet Li is treated like a dog and forced to fight to the death only to escape and get revenge while having a special relationship with classical music. Here the dog is actually a dog (also with a special relationship to classical music), but both films feel like they want to say something, but in the end I’m not sure what that is except to justify some cool images.
fn1. For paralleling an animal’s suffering with a young woman’s (amongst other things) see Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, which depending on the day, I’d call the greatest film ever made. For animal uprisings see any of the Planet of the Apes films, Dawn being particularly excellent or Long Weekend, one of the most underrated horror film of the 70s. For a movie that uses animals to tell us about society, see George Miller’s Babe Pig in the City. Animated films have also really tackled similar issues and do so without the ethical concern, so you could check out something like (often considered one of the most depressing movies ever) The Plague Dogs