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‘White God’: Melodramatic tale wags the dogs

By Bruce Ingram | For the Sun-Times

It’s said that every dog has its day, and that’s certainly true in this ASPCA-nightmarish prizewinner from Cannes — where it turns out to be a day of vengeance.

Unfortunately, whatever satisfaction you may derive from seeing assorted nasty human beings get what’s coming to them for betraying the trust of man’s best friend is watered down by vague social and political allegory.

“White God” (the title refers to us, by the way, from a dog’s point of view) opens with a spectacular, dreamlike scene. A young girl is riding her bicycle through the deserted streets of Budapest when she discovers she is being pursued by a pack of 250 wild, ravening dogs, with one particularly fierce animal in the lead.

The girl is named Lili (13-year-old newcomer Zsófia Psotta), and the leader of the pack is Hagen, her former pet. Months earlier, Lili had been forced to spend the summer with her divorced father (Sándor Zsótér), a sad, embittered man who refused to pay a new tax on mixed-breed dogs and put Hagen out on the side of the road. The dog endures an odyssey of treachery and cruelty at the hands of humans with violently ugly consequences. While Lili searches Budapest for her one true friend, Hagen falls into the hands of a dogfight trainer who beats him into savagery. And transforms him into a Spartacus-like leader of feral mutts turned against their former masters.

Hungarian writer-director Kornél Mundruczó (who won the Un Certain Regard award at last year’s Cannes fest) came up with the idea for “White God” while visiting a dog pound in Budapest. The sight of the dogs penned in their cages awaiting execution reminded him, he says, of a caste system emerging in Europe, with immigrants comprising an oppressed underclass. And the potential that the oppressed might one day rise up in revolt.

That’s a compelling idea, and Mundruczó brings it to life with shocking effect from time to time — notably in the scenes of Hagen and his pack-mates being brutalized by dog-catchers and the like. A vicious staged dogfight seemingly inspires Hagen to turn against his true enemy. Mundruczó and his trainers (who used no CGI effects) achieve remarkable results with their canine cast of hundreds, and the two brothers who play Hagen provide “White God” with its best performances.

The director is less successful, however, in terms of combining his bleak, Fassbinder-inspired sense of melodrama (if you think the dogs have it bad here, wait till you see the cold, cynical, loveless lives of the people) with a Hollywood-inspired horror/thriller finale. Unlike Hagen, he ultimately bites off more than he can chew.

Bruce Ingram is a local freelance writer.