Budapest, Hungary, has a serious PR problem thanks to the movie “White God.” The film, a grimly dark satire, depicts a city of serious dog haters — from ordinary apartment tenants intolerant of canines, to the homeless who steal them, to the Gypsy underground which trains them to fight to the death and the ruthless legions of dog-catchers who swarm in on escaped animals.
Standing alone against this sea of Hungarian hound hate is Lili (Zsófia Psotta). She’s 13, her parents are divorced and her big mutt Hagen is her best friend. But when Lili is forced to stay with her bitter ex-professor dad, now reduced to being a meat inspector at a slaughterhouse, Hagen is not a part of the deal. Dad puts up with the dog only until a busybody neighbor lies to the authorities to get Dad (Sándor Zsótér) into trouble. Fed up with the dog and Lili’s growing defiance over it, he dumps Hagen in the street.
“White God” — the title seems to be a play on Sam Fuller’s “White Dog,” a film about a girl whose pet was raised to attack black people — is mostly about Lili’s efforts to find her beloved dog, the awful odyssey Hagen endures when he joins the ranks of Hungary’s strays, and the possibility of revenge when those strays escape. The film’s opening image is of Lili, a teenage “white god” at the head of a vast pack.
Co-writer/director Kornél Mundruczó allows for a little anthropomorphism when a Jack Russell terrier mutt takes Hagen under his wing and into a street pack. But when animal control swoops in on a SWAT-style raid to round up the strays, Hagen is on his own. Stolen, sold, brutalized, trained and injected, he becomes a dog fighter. And that’s not a pretty sight.
Meanwhile, Lili’s defiance has her quitting the youth orchestra where she plays trumpet, roaming the city on her bike, searching. A musical pun — Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” is a piece she’s learning, and also features in a Tom & Jerry cartoon that plays on a TV in the animal shelter, calming the dogs about to be euthanized.
A quote by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke opens “White God” — “Everything terrible is something that needs our love.” But that goes for the film, too. Who will want to see a movie so focused on dogs, in which they’re brutalized and killed?
Perhaps the satiric laughs came easier in Budapest, in the original Hungarian (with English subtitles).
Cast: Zsófia Psotta, Sándor Zsótér, László Gálffi
Credits: Directed by Kornél Mundruczó, written by Kornél Mundruczó, Viktória Petrányi, Kata Wéber. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 2:01