White God

The world is a jungle, or a zoo, or both; or so seems to suggest Hungarian film and theatre director Kornél Mundruczó, as he parallels the tales of a girl and her dog in the forceful White God. A twisted mix of animal melodrama and pointed political satire that ends as quasi-revolutionary horror thriller, appropriately signposted by Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody, White God is an operatic free-for-all you can't simply ignore away.

     Mr. Mundruczó literally pulls out all the stops to batter an audience into submission with his relentless yet strangely bewitching film; you're not sure you like it or even want to see it again, but you can't help but admire the take-it-or-leave-it bravado behind its bold conceptualizing of a butterfly-effect story of pure hearts confronted with the evil that men do. White God operates on two parallel tracks resulting from one single, apparently harmless event: a divorced dad (Sándor Zsótér) taking in his teenage daughter (Zsófia Psotta) for the summer while Mom takes off for a work conference.

     Quickly and expertly, the director sketches that the separation was tense and that nobody's particularly happy about the improvised arrangement: Lili certainly isn't, and neither is Daniel (so called in the end credits even though his name is never mentioned), doubly displeased that he has to take in as well the girl's dog, Hagen. Since in the film's Hungary mutts or half-breed dogs have to either pay a fine or be given away to a kennel, Lili's loyalty to Hagen is tested when the exasperated father, incapable of dealing with the girl's moods, ends up setting the dog loose in the streets of Budapest.

     From then on, the dog becomes a canine Balthazar that is gradually humiliated by human society, as he is taken away from the community of strays he had found refuge in, turned first into a fighting dog and eventually ending up in the dog pound, before leading his "second-rate friends" into a full-blown canine revolution. Lili, in the meantime, searches desperately all over town for him and faces only dismissive or derisive adults and uninterested, alienated fellow students; she is humiliated as much as Hagen but also eventually realises she too must rise to the occasion to stop the madness. Everybody is judgmental about everything in White God, except for girl and dog, who fight back in the way that their own experience taught them to.

     Whether that is enough is something the film's ending fails to answer definitively; whether the film's slightly apocalyptic climactic events are solved for good by Lili's intervention or merely temporarily is something Mr. Mundruczó prefers to leave for his audience to decide, having carried the viewer along a rollercoaster of precisely calibrated cause-and-effect twists and turns. Nothing at all about White God is subtle or discrete; even the references to Samuel Fuller's White Dog (in the title), fairy tales like The Pied Piper of Hamelin or the rising nationalism that is rearing its ugly head all over Europe aren't exactly hidden.

     But if White God can feel like you're being hit across the head with its easy-to-see-through metaphor, it can be very effective, and there is a rather admirable brio in Mr. Mundruczó's juxtaposition of manipulative melodrama, adult fairy tale and cautionary horror tale, shot and edited with a forceful energy, according to tried-and-true narrative precepts. It is a film that sets its course, runs true to it and damn the torpedoes; it doesn't want to be liked, it pretty much demands that you pay attention to it whether you like it or not. In some ways, that's refreshing.

Hungary, Germany, Sweden, 2014
121 minutes
Cast Zsófia Psotta, Sándor Zsótér, Szabolcs Thuróczy, Lili Monori, László Gálffi
Director Kornél Mundruczó; screenwriters Kata Wéber, Mr. Mundruczó and Viktória Petrányi; cinematographer Marcell Rév (colour, widescreen); composer Asher Goldschmidt; costumes Sabine Greunig; editor Dávid Jancsó; producer Ms. Petrányi; production companies Proton Cinema in co-production with Pola Pandora, Chimney, Filmpartners, Film i Väst and ZDF/ARTE
screened May 19th 2015, Medeia Monumental 3, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


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