I absolutely adore dogs. So the opening sequence of White God in which the film’s main (human) character, Lili (Zsófia Psotta), is chased by hundreds of dogs through a deserted Budapest proved to be a very intriguing opening. Not least because I’ve had wonderful dreams not too dissimilar to that opening.
13-year-old Lili lives with her dad and her beloved dog, Hagen. Lili’s dad has no time for the dog and after being told that there’s a tax on crossbreeds that he has no interest in paying, Hagen is abandoned on the side of the road.
White Dog runs Lili and Hagen’s story simultaneously which brings up one of the film’s major problems: anything involving Lili’s storyline is terrible. From the general acting of every human on screen to Lili’s half-baked friendship with a boy from her school band. It leaves a significant portion of White God flagging.
Any scenes involving Hagen are largely enjoyable. Kornél Mundruczó and co must be praised for getting so much acting from animals presumably indifferent to the trials and tribulations of a filmmaker. Hagen in something reminiscent to Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar is passed between owners until he finds himself in the possession of someone involved in underground dog fighting. Hagen’s transition from docile pet to fighting machine is incredibly distressing.
It is clear that the use of cute dogs isn’t just for animal lovers to swoon uncontrollably for two-hours. White Dog has social commentary bubbling under the surface. There is the obvious anti-animal cruelty, but the denouncing of impure mix-breeds and the swarms of dogs taking Budapest by storm appears to be a cautionary tale about what can happen when a group deemed inferior are treated incorrectly – back even a passive dog into a corner for too long and eventually it’s going to bite back. Think Spartacus with a Labrador/Shar-Pei crossbreed instead of Kirk Douglas.
White Dog’s biggest issue is that of tone. It is all over the place. Not only does it suffer from the aforementioned dual narrative being poor half the time, White Dog switches jarringly between harrowing tale of animal cruelty to absurd comedy farce on a whim. It’s difficult to take everything seriously when you have scenes of dogs stalking previous mistreaters in their homes with shots of legs in shadow (which had people giggling in the cinema), then a following scene in which the dogs are being gunned down graphically on city streets by police to an emotionally manipulative score.
While I appreciate that Mundruczó’s film is quite unique (I doubt we’ll see anything like it in cinemas this year), it simply fails to engage. The story is an interesting one in premise but the terrible acting of all two-legged animal actors sullies White God’s more promising moments. (4)