When asked in an interview at the Sundance film festival about the inspiration behind White God – the latest winner of the coveted Prix d’un Certain Regard award at Cannes – Hungarian auteur Kornél Mundruczó stated that he was moved by the Nobel Prize winning novel “Disgraced,” and a line that apparently went a little like, “we are the White God’s.” This quotation proved resonant for Mundruczó because it made him not only realize the ingenuity behind a story driven from a canine perspective, but it also aided in his understanding of our roles as humans and as caregivers, in the maintenance of healthy relationships with domestic (and wild) animals.
However, as interesting as this tidbit of information may be, it is given neither explanation nor allusion during the entirety of the film, and as such, the title White God becomes an endlessly interpretive one. Answerless questions prompt some into drawing comparisons with Samuel Fuller’s 1982 allegorical film of the same name, whilst leaving others scratching their heads, because they aren’t that cultured, or that literary (this is the category in which I am placed).
But why preface this review with this seemingly irrelevant bit of Jeopardy-like trivia? Well, the answer is because these ideas concern what I believe to be the magic of allegorical tradition, in that they embody the idea that symbolism is varied and variable, and that liaisons are endless, and bounding. Although some see Fuller, and some see Coetzee, Mundruczó’s film essentially embodies both parables (and many more, lesser known parables), for at its core, White God concerns itself with the conflicted views of race relations and human superiority, within the context of a rehashed ‘Man vs. Wild’ fable.
Both characters feel lost without the other, and as circumstance brings clarity, their paths collide head on at the end of the film. Much has changed, however, for Hagen is not the dog he once was.
And this ‘Man vs. Wild’ fable – the one that acts to illustrate the indignities placed upon animals by their human superiors – is visible in all of its cruelty, almost immediately after the initial credit sequence. Transported into a small white walled room, we watch as the carcass of a cow is viciously stripped of its skin and blood and bone. Cleavers hack, saws buzz, and the bovine’s entrails tumble to the floor in a putrid collapse. It’s an appalling bit of imagery, because it juxtaposes harshly against both the serene, fable-like pre-credit sequence, and also the sequences prevalent in our day-to-day immediacies. However, regardless of how catastrophic the butchering may seem (and I’m not talking about their flesh-flaying technique), or how many PETA supporters would keel over and die due to the graphic violence prevalent, it serves a purpose; it acts as one piece of the metaphoric puzzle, without which no idea would become fully formed.
After the blood drains out of the cow’s carcass, the camera pans to a man that stands watching over the shoulders of the butchers. His name is Daniel (Sandor Zsoter), and he’s the father to Lili (Zsofia Psotta), the kind hearted 13-year old protagonist with a talent for the trumpet. Daniel’s ex-wife forces him to watch over Lili for the summer, though he doesn’t realize that she comes as a package deal; toting her loyal companion, the brown-haired, athletic crossbreed named Hagen, everywhere she goes. Unfortunately, Daniel’s shabby apartment is ill equipped to accommodate such types of animals, and, after a neighbor calls in the authorities to apprehend the mutt, we learn of a government-regulated tax that has been placed on impure breeds. Daniel is told to either adhere to the fine that concerns this regulation, or to toss the dog onto the street. Unwilling to pay up (because he hates his ex so, so much) Daniel ditches Hagen near a busy motorway. This is where the conflict arises, for the remainder of the film concerns the attempts to cope and to survive made by Lili and Hagen in the wake of their separation. Both characters feel lost without the other, and as circumstance brings clarity, their paths collide head on at the end of the film. Much has changed, however, for Hagen is not the dog he once was.
And, without spoiling much else of the plot (for, going into White God blind was a really visceral experience), I’d like to just say that, if you are an individual who:
- Is squeamish, and does not like violence against animals
- Is a die-hard PETA supporter
- Had a past life on the road as either:
- A Vagabond
- A European Dog Smuggler
- A Sadist
this may not be the film for you. Hagen experiences some harsh realities during his time as a dog-on-the-run, and many of those actualities are tough to handle. Mundruczó makes these immediacies dark and gritty, partly due to the cinematography utilized when White God follows the perspective of its canine anti-hero. Framing each shot in shaky, droned out Technicolor, cinematographer Marcell Rév utilizes POV to add to the climactic intensity. It makes the unconventional, Planet of the Apes type narrative more jarring, because the head on action adds to the shock value.
Mundruczó makes these immediacies dark and gritty, partly due to the cinematography utilized when White God follows the perspective of its canine anti-hero. Framing each shot in shaky, droned out Technicolor, cinematographer Marcell Rév utilizes POV to add to the climactic intensity.
However, in my opinion, when Mundruczó shifts perspectives to that of Lili (and he does so seamlessly, I might add), this is where White God truly shines. Without the cinematographic gimmick to fall back on, Lili’s sequences must find their realism through other venues, and this they do in spades. Between Mundruczó’s sharp writing and naturalistic character arc, and newcomer Zsofia Psotta’s performance that masterfully juggles grief and youthful vigor in equal measure, every scene is a breath of fresh air. A standout sequence comes late in the film, when Lili, after a day of searching for Hagen to no avail, joins a male classmate (and his girlfriend) at a house party. Upset about her lack of companionship, from both her dog and from this boy, Lili begins to let go. And though it’s set up much like any other ‘teen house party’ scene, what makes this particular section magic comes from the whole that it contributes towards. Seeing this natural, familiar setting is the perfect break from the abnormal. It creates an appropriate lull in the story, making us falsely believe that the worst has come and gone.
So White God, in summation. What is it about? Is it about hierarchy, and discrimination present between classes and colours? Is it about cruelty, and negligence towards our animal counterparts? Or is it about something else, something more complex, more distant? I don’t think we will ever know, for in true parable fashion, the answers are endless. With a 117 minute run time, White God feels daunting, but with expert pacing that runs between dog and girl, girl and dog, as well as a bizarre, and strangely unexpected climax, time seems to speed by. If you’re looking for a thrill, and a breath of fresh air, look no further than Mundruczó’s latest. Just make sure you can handle it.