White God PosterWhite God (2015)

by Matt Piucci

Music has charms to soothe the savage beast”, quoted here incorrectly from William Congreve’s poem as is commonly accepted, although the actual line is “…soothe the savage breast”. But I am going with the common incorrect version for the purpose of this review of White God, Hungarian director Kornel Mondruczo’s 2014 masterpiece.

Cinema at its best is magic. Special effects lose charm, and those used in every era of film eventually seem embarrassing and childish in modern terms. But what if there are none? No special effects and yet you see things that your eyes don’t believe? White God is such a film, the most exciting and moving cinematic experience for me in 2015 so far. It’s hard to describe - a gritty fairy tale, shot in Budapest, portrayed here as a bleak and empty Eastern European city. (In reality Budapest is bustling and beautiful.) The Wire meets Old Yeller meets Taken/Death Wish. With the Liam Neeson /Chuck Bronson character played by … a dog.

The title itself is a hint to its content and intent. It may be referencing the early 80’s movie White Dog, starring Kristi MacNichol, who plays an actress who has found a stray dog that she learns was trained to kill black people. Paul Winfield (a black actor) plays the trainer who is ultimately unsuccessful in deprogramming the dog. Is racism inherent? Is it always learned? Can it be unlearned?

The film begins with a harrowing foreshadowing of the end, wherein the young protagonist Lili is riding her bike through an overcast Budapest, the lone human being chased by a pack of around 200 dogs. Lili is played by 13 year old Zsofia Psotta, whose performance is reminiscent of Natalie Portman in The Professional. Her age is perfect as the story is a harsh allegory about lost innocence and the cruelty that the adult world shows to all downtrodden- those with two legs or four.

The rest of the story goes along simply- Lili has just gotten a new dog, Hagen, played by two mutts who are the canine world’s Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro, appearing to display a wide range of human emotions. Lili’s mom is leaving town with her new boyfriend for the summer, and Lili must move back to her estranged father’s place, and she is not excited by the prospect. He lives in an apartment and is not thrilled about adding a dog. The tension between daughter and father is stretched to the breaking point when a cruel landlady immediately reports the dog to the “authorities”. A man shows up the next day to inform them that since Hagen is a mixed breed, they must pay a heavy tax or get rid of him, as mixed breeds are nothing but trouble. This is a clunky metaphor for every oppressed group, but it works. Lili freaks out and leaves with her dog and tries to smuggle him into her orchestra practice where she plays trumpet in a very good young group who are practicing for a performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Hagen is unable to stay put and the orchestra conductor throws Lili and Hagen out. At this point, we are now twenty minutes into the film and there has not a been single true smile on any human’s face, except Lili’s in the very early scenes of Hagen and Lili, pre- Dad’s house. Lili’s Dad gets her back into the orchestra and the dog is left at the side of the road. That is where Lili and Hagen’s parallel paths begin, each descending into the cruelty and malice of the adult human world.

For Lili, her journey consists of running away and getting mixed up with drugs at a party/rock show she has no business attending. It is a cold place, a crowded loud room can be the loneliest experience. Ironically, these are the scenes with the most people, but it is hardly friendly or inviting. She is arrested with someone else’s dope, a boy who she fancies and who is clearly too old for her, as he knows it too and is about the only sympathetic character in the film. She gets bailed out and is taken home by her exasperated father.

The entire film’s dialogue is sparse, and in two lines the father reestablishes connection to his daughter by saying, ” You are old enough now to know the truth- it is very difficult to lose someone”, referring to his ex wife. It is a small and beautiful moment. This guy is an ex-academic who works as a meat inspector (of course, the whole film is dogs and meat) and the precision and deadness of spirit by which he and his colleagues dissect a cow carcass is the scariest thing in the film. And that happens every day to cows that are eaten.

Hagen, on his path, learns there are no sympathetic adults in the film whatsoever, save the dad at the end and his descent is even more cruel than Lili’s. What innocence the world brought him is beaten out by a vicious trainer who gives him steroids and sharpens his teeth. When Hagen finally gets to the fighting ring, his violence - not innate, but learned - is unleashed. In one of the film’s most remarkable shots, we see Hagen looking down at the dog he has just killed, with a look of sadness, regret, confusion, and ultimately anger for what he has done and anger towards the men who made him do it. It is a truly remarkable sequence and that the pooch is a believable actor capable of making us believe he is displaying that kind of emotional depth is even more remarkable. But that is the very heart of the film- these creatures we adore, marginalize and abuse, are capable of so much more than we think. Perhaps White God’s lesson is that every creature has more to offer than we think.

HagenHagen escapes from the fighting ring and that sets up the rest of the story for the inevitable reconnection between Hagen and Lili. Hagen eventually hooks up with a dog pack and runs into a Jack Russell terrier who nearly steals the movie. He is Hagen’s guide and buddy and initially helps prevent Hagen from the same fate as his other dog colleagues- prison or death. After seeing his buddies mowed down by callous animal control officers, Hagen’s tale of revenge begins. He leads his pack through the streets like an Army. Every person who harmed him is singled out for retribution- the animal control officer who hurt him, the trainer, the deli owner who sold him (played by the director) and the landlady. These remarkable scenes with 200 dogs running controlled through the streets of Budapest are breathtaking.

One of the miracles of the film is that you do not realize what you have seen until later. The Budapest of this film consists entirely of empty streets (long shots) with virtually no adults who are not in the animal exploitation business- either butchers, meat processors, illegal dogfighting trainers or delis. I did not realize this until later. There are no humans in the city by day, the only activity seen is with Lili and her male friend going to a club party, but they are all young.

After Hagen’s crew has wreaked havoc across the city, very specifically eliminating all who had harmed him, where can the film go? Hagen and his crew end up outside the meat packing plant where the Dad works, Lili ends up there as she realizes Hagen is going to get his revenge on everyone, and she is not sure if that includes her father, or even her. We wonder why Lili has been carrying her trumpet everywhere, and when the final meeting happens, it is only by playing her trumpet that she can get Hagen and all 200 dogs to lie down quietly. Which she does as well. Only music can soothe these savaged beasts. This small ray of hope at the end where the father and his daughter complete their reconnection, knowing that it is over for Hagen and his buddies, is all we get as a tiny crumb of happiness. The father is asked by his colleague if he should call the authorities, who will come shortly and it will all end badly for Hagen and his crew. He says merely not just yet. He then lies down next to his daughter as well, and the scene fades to black- the perfect ending.

The final scene reminds me of the end of Cool Hand Luke, where the only solace for Luke, who knows that he is being taken away to die, is Rod Steiger’s crushed sunglasses. All Hagen gets is this moment of respite before the world comes to crush him. But he has had his revenge.

When a director can make you think a dog is the acting peer of DeNiro or Brando, that is magic. And no special effects.

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