Director: Kornél Mundruczó
Starring: Zsófia Psotta, Sándor Zsótér, Lili Horváth
Running time: 121 minutes
“Everything terrible is something that needs our love.” The epigraph that opens White God (Fehér Isten in its native Hungarian) is a message that comes to define the film. The uprising of unfairly persecuted demographics is not an unknown one. Violent parables of this sort have a precedence, for instance to children in the Spanish horror Quién puede matar a un niño? (Who Can Kill a Child?), but here it gains a fresh angle when applied to animals. But of course, as with any parable, it’s not completely about animals, becoming a vital commentary on overlooked societies. Despite the importance of its commentary, the film doesn’t get held down in its own message, working as an exciting piece of entertainment as well as a cautionary tale.
Kornél Mundruczó’s direction, in combination with Marcell Rev’s cinematography, is as geared towards conveying their message as the plot itself. One memorable scene, just after Hagen the dog is first abandoned, depicts the dangers of everyday actions for those considered as outsiders. Shot low from the dog’s perspective, simple acts such as crossing the road are laden with treachery, the cars becoming figures of imminent violence. This creation of Hagen’s perspective – supported by some seriously impressive dog acting, particularly in the shocking fight scenes – is where White God really comes into its own. Many scenes of dogs going about their lives could in other hands become tedious, yet the world created fills every corner with intrigue and danger.
A few words need to be said on the film’s violence. Human to animal, animal to animal, animal to human – White God covers them all. Frequently shocking, including an alarmingly real dog fight sequence, the violence in the film never feels gratuitous. Beginning with the slaughter of a cow, this cycle of violence is crucial in marking the cautionary nature of the parable. It is upsetting, some audience members being known to leave during screenings. But just like the darkness and horror in children’s fairytales, it serves as a lesson and a warning, one that we cannot, and perhaps even should not, take our eyes away from.
That said, not all the film quite hits the mark. Lili (Zsófia Psotta)’s narrative, a coming of age story revolving around her romance with an older boy and her difficulties with an oppressive music teacher, feels largely irrelevant to the film’s main drive. The film presents her story as mirroring Hagen and the other dog’s plight, yet this is a connection that is not fully explored. Identifying moments, such as both Hagen and Lili receiving similar injuries on their leg, tease a greater connection between the stories that ultimately does not feel like it is there. A greater use of parallel editing may have improved the situation. It also stretches the running time to just under 2 hours, and although this doesn’t particularly drag, a shorter, leaner film may have been more powerful. All the separate stories work well in their own right, but when combined can often add confusion to the film as opposed to a greater level of understanding. Whilst the mix of narratives does not always work, Mundruczó largely manages to balance the tone nicely between socialist realism vibes and the areas where it moves into an almost magical parable.
In the end, the message of White God is a simple one. Dealing with society’s attitudes towards minorities, including an ever-growing European ‘underclass’, there is no revelation to be drawn from the end that was not there in the opening. But as visceral visual spectacle and an exploration of an idea that is equally intellectually provocative and thoroughly entertaining, White God is a film that howls out to be experienced.