3.5 / 5 stars
The first scene in 2014 Cannes standout White God looks like the start of a post-apocalypse genre movie: it’s daylight, and a young girl is riding her bike down a barren street. She heads over a bridge that’s jarringly empty save for one abandoned car. From the wide shot, you’d think she was the only human alive. But as the girl turns the corner onto a narrow avenue, she’s suddenly followed by dozens and dozens (hundreds?) of sprinting canines. Are they the only mammals left? Where did the dogs come from? How did we get here? It’s a spooky, mesmerizing open to a film that successfully taps into other movies, yet is wholly unique.
We soon return to reality in Kornél Mundruczó’s tale of two unwanted souls, a girl and her dog. The girl, Lili, is unceremoniously dumped on her father for a few months while mom and her boyfriend travel. Dad (Sándor Zsóstár) has minimal patience for his offspring, and none for her loyal mutt who comes as part of the package deal. He’s just gotten off work, where he’s approved a slaughtered cow for consumption after watching its disembowelment – shockingly gross if you’ve never seen it, and a hell of a contrast to the very alive dogs of the previous scene.
Mundruczó uses the first act at the father’s apartment to efficiently set up the familial connection between Lili and her dog, Hagen. After dad banishes Hagen to the bathroom during their first evening together, Lili plays her trumpet to calm the dog, and then sacks out in the tub to assure he won’t be alone. The scene is both odd and very sweet, a show of solidarity without the saccharine.
Events quickly devolve and Hagen (“played” by two sibling dogs) finds himself abandoned by the side of the road – not unlike Lili (a very controlled young actress named Zsofía Psotta) being dropped off by her mom in a parking lot. Here’s where White God seems to lack some narrative truth: Why is Lili so quick to accept her father’s heartless treatment of Hagen? You’d think she’d be screaming her lungs out in protest to leaving her dog alone and in danger, especially after the care that she’s shown. Instead, she acquiesces and doesn’t appear to mourn Hagen’s loss appropriately, even after searching for him in vain.
Emotional imbalance notwithstanding, White God then becomes a finely tuned parallel story about animals’ natural instinct to survive, to adapt, and to belong. Lili becomes interested in acting a little older and wilder than her age while growing closer to her dad; Hagen bands together with other strays to make ends meet – at least until he’s held and controlled beyond his will.
Be forewarned that there is a good deal of brutality against dogs in this film, some of it severe, some of it subtle (and little of it as brutal as Iñárritu’s Amores Perros). Of course, we see very little of it on screen, but Mundruczó’s use of sound – dogs whimpering, especially – is painfully effective.
The fact that the camera in White God gets down at dog level reinforces the film’s empathy for the oppressed “animals” in the world, all ripe for an uprising of one kind or another. No, the beautiful, intimidating opening sequence isn’t a dream — it actually does come to pass in White God. And yet, it’s not even the most competent and affecting scene of Mundruczó’s final act, a sequence that seems to continue besting itself as it progresses, culminating in a moment that needs no words and leaves its audience speechless.